Plague of Cyprian

The Plague of Cyprian is the name given to a pandemic, probably of smallpox, that afflicted the Roman Empire from AD 250 onwards during the larger Crisis of the Third Century.[1] It was still raging in 270, when it claimed the life of emperor Claudius II Gothicus. The plague is thought to have caused widespread manpower shortages in agriculture and the Roman army.[2] Its modern name commemorates St. Cyprian, bishop of Carthage, an early Christian writer who witnessed and described the plague.

Contemporary accounts

In 250 to 266, at the height of the outbreak, 5000 people a day were said to be dying in Rome. Cyprian's biographer, Pontius of Carthage, wrote of the plague at Carthage:

"Afterwards there broke out a dreadful plague, and excessive destruction of a hateful disease invaded every house in succession of the trembling populace, carrying off day by day with abrupt attack numberless people, every one from his own house. All were shuddering, fleeing, shunning the contagion, impiously exposing their own friends, as if with the exclusion of the person who was sure to die of the plague, one could exclude death itself also. There lay about the meanwhile, over the whole city, no longer bodies, but the carcasses of many, and, by the contemplation of a lot which in their turn would be theirs, demanded the pity of the passers-by for themselves. No one regarded anything besides his cruel gains. No one trembled at the remembrance of a similar event. No one did to another what he himself wished to experience."[3]

In Carthage, the "Decian persecution", unleashed at the onset of the plague, sought out Christian scapegoats. Fifty years later, North African convert to Christianity Arnobius defended his new religion from pagan allegations:

"that a plague was brought upon the earth after the Christian religion came into the world, and after it revealed the mysteries of hidden truth? But pestilences, say my opponents, and droughts, wars, famines, locusts, mice, and hailstones, and other hurtful things, by which the property of men is assailed, the gods bring upon us, incensed as they are by your wrong-doings and by your transgressions." [4]

Cyprian drew moralizing analogies in his sermons to the Christian community and drew a word picture of the plague's symptoms in his essay De mortalitate ("On the Plague"):

"This trial, that now the bowels, relaxed into a constant flux, discharge the bodily strength; that a fire originated in the marrow ferments into wounds of the fauces; that the intestines are shaken with a continual vomiting; that the eyes are on fire with the injected blood; that in some cases the feet or some parts of the limbs are taken off by the contagion of diseased putrefaction; that from the weakness arising by the maiming and loss of the body, either the gait is enfeebled, or the hearing is obstructed, or the sight darkened;—is profitable as a proof of faith. What a grandeur of spirit it is to struggle with all the powers of an unshaken mind against so many onsets of devastation and death! what sublimity, to stand erect amid the desolation of the human race, and not to lie prostrate with those who have no hope in God; but rather to rejoice, and to embrace the benefit of the occasion; that in thus bravely showing forth our faith, and by suffering endured, going forward to Christ by the narrow way that Christ trod, we may receive the reward of His life and faith according to His own judgment!" [5]

The plague still raged in 270: in the account of the wars against Goths waged by Claudius Gothicus given in the Historia Augusta, it is reported that "in the consulship of Antiochianus and Orfitus[6] the favour of heaven furthered Claudius' success. For a great multitude, the survivors of the barbarian tribes, who had gathered in Haemimontum[7] were so stricken with famine and pestilence that Claudius now scorned to conquer them further.... during this same period the Scythians attempted to plunder in Crete and Cyprus as well, but everywhere their armies were likewise stricken with pestilence and so were defeated."


The severe devastation to the European population from the two plagues may indicate that the people had no previous exposure or immunity to the plague's cause. Historian William Hardy McNeill asserts that the earlier Antonine Plague (166–180) and the Plague of Cyprian (251–270) were the first transfers from animal hosts to humanity of two different diseases, one of smallpox and one of measles although not necessarily in that order. The modern consensus, however, prefers the theory that both outbreaks were of smallpox.[8]


Many Roman authorities blamed the plague itself on Christianity. Despite this, the threat of imminent death from the plague and the unwavering conviction among many of the Christian clergy in the face of it won more converts to the faith.[9]


  1. The power of plagues by Irwin W. Sherman
  2. Zosimus (1814) [translation originally printed]. The New History, Book 1. (scanned and published online by Roger Pearse). London: Green and Chaplin. pp. 16, 21, 31. Retrieved 2016-04-22.
  3. Pontius of Carthage, Life of Cyprian. Transl. Ernest Wallis, c. 1885. Online at Christian Classics Ethereal Library.
  4. Arnobius, Adversus Gentes 1.3. Translated by Hamilton Bryce and Hugh Campbell, c. 1885. Online at Christian Classics Ethereal Library.
  5. Cyprian, De Mortalitate. Transl. Ernest Wallis, c. 1885. Online at Christian Classics Ethereal Library.
  6. AD 270.
  7. Mount Haemus in the Balkans.
  8. D. Ch. Stathakopoulos Famine and Pestilence in the late Roman and early Byzantine Empire (2007) 95
  9. "Saint Cyprian". Encyclopedia Britannica. 9 May 2013.

See also

External links

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