In his history of the Byzantine reconquest of North Africa from the Vandals in the first half of the sixth century, Procopius, the famous historiographer of the age of the emperor Justinian, tells the story how Cyprian, the former bishop of the metropolis of Carthage and martyr of the mid-third century persecutions, turned into a source of hope for the Romans, who at that time lived under Vandal rule for almost a century.
According to Procopius, the Vandals took possession of the famous church of St. Cyprian after conquering Carthage in 439. Unlike the Romans, who were mostly Catholics, the Vandals adhered to what is commonly called Arian Christianity. Without going into theological details, it can be stated that this religious difference caused massive social tensions between Romans and Vandals. This is where Cyprian comes in: As Procopius explains, the saint repeatedly appeared in the dreams of the grieving Romans and told them not to be anxious, for one day he would come to be his own avenger. In 533, a Byzantine army sent by the emperor Justinian, defeated the Vandals and reconquered North Africa for the empire. As fortune would have it, the Byzantines entered Carthage at the eve of the saint’s feast, the “Cypriana”; they found the church already decorated but abandoned by the Arian clergy. On this news, the Catholics flocked to the church, and as they celebrated the saint’s feast, “it was known to all what the vision of the dream was foretelling” (Procopius, History of the Wars III, 21, 17-25). Procopius’ story illustrates Cyprian’s immense importance to the city of Carthage and also for Christians of various creeds. Although in many ways a controversial figure, Cyprian was a true North African saint.
Most of what we know about Cyprian as a historical person comes from his own writings. His date of birth is unknown, but it seems that he came from one of the upper-class families of Carthage. His social background gave him a traditional Roman education, which is reflected in his writings, but also a habitus that enabled him to interact on eye-level with the local social elite. He converted to Christianity in the early 240s. His unusually rapid rise in the ecclesiastical hierarchy culminated in his ordination as bishop of Carthage in 248 or 249. Cyprian’s steep career prompted critics early on. The tone became harsher when he evaded the repressions against the Christians resulting from the edict of sacrifice issued by the emperor Decius (249–251) in 250 by fleeing Carthage. The fact that he managed to stay in close contact with his community during 14 months in hiding shows that the North African church had developed structures by which it functioned even in times of crisis. When the emperor Valerian (253–260) initiated another wave of persecution in 257, Cyprian at first choose for exile again but returned to his see about a year later. He was arrested and after a trial at the court of the provincial governor, the Proconsul of the province of Africa Proconsularis, executed on 14 September 258 (according to today’s conventional Catholic and Orthodox dating).
Cyprian’s importance for early Christianity, however, goes far beyond that of a martyr of the traumatic persecutions of the mid-third century. As a bishop, he was a central figure at a historical turning point not only for the church in North Africa but in the Roman Empire in general, for three main reasons. First, Cyprian played a strong role in the controversy about how to deal with those Christians who had fallen from faith, at least in its pure doctrine, during the recent persecution. This question was to trouble the North African Church for years in the future. Although Cyprian’s initial hard line of denying apostate Christians immediate readmission to the Church did not prevail in the end, his rigorous view explains why he was later venerated as a saint by Christian movements such as the Donatists who held similarly extreme moral views in the fourth and fifth century. Against the background of this deep conflict, Cyprian, secondly, took a strong stand for the unity of the church. By claiming that “outside the church there is no salvation” (extra ecclesia salus non est; Cyprian, epistulae 73, 21), Cyprian denied legitimacy to every heterodox understanding of the faith and rejected sacraments administered by heterodox clerics. Although controversial in its theological message at all times, the basic idea behind Cyprian’s dictum became an ecclesiastical dogma at the instigation of pope Eugen IV in the mid-fifteenth century. The unity of the church, third, Cyprian saw embodied in the person of the bishop who was thus given a central role as an authority in matters of faith. In the long run, Cyprian’s writings became a source of arguments for a strong position of the bishop as leader of his community.
Because of his stance on theological and ecclesiological issues, the bishop and martyr Cyprian could take on various meanings for later generations of Christians of different creeds, as Procopius indicates in the sixth century. Today, Cyprian is commemorated in the Catholic, Orthodox, Syriac-Orthodox, Coptic, Armenian, as well as in the Protestant and Anglican churches.
Dr. Daniel Syrbe (FernUniversität Hagen)