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The Death of St Cyprian

Gregory DiPippo

Today marks the anniversary of the death of St Cyprian, bishop and martyr, in the year 258. His feast was originally kept on this date, according to the Church’s most ancient custom that Saints are celebrated on the day of their entry into eternal life, but later bumped forward to the 16th by the Exaltation of the Cross. After Tertullian, he is the second major Church Father who wrote in Latin, and one of the most important creators of a specifically Christian form of Latinity. Like Tertullian, he was educated in the great tradition of Roman rhetoric, but unlike him, he never allowed that training to get the better of him stylistically. His writing is generally clear and to the point, where Tertullian is often obscure and verbose. Although the latter died outside the peace of the Church as a member of the Montanist sect, St Cyprian always referred to him as “the Master”, and read his works assiduously.

Cyprian’s career in the Church was unusually meteoric. He was baptized ca. 245 after an early life which he himself described as dissipated, ordained deacon and priest not long after, and then elected bishop of Carthage, the most important see of Roman North Africa, sometime in later 248 or early 249. Shortly after, the Emperor Decius began the first general persecution of the Christians, which caught the Church in Africa very much by surprise, since it had mostly been at peace for nearly fifty years. Cyprian fled from Carthage, which brought a fair amount of negative criticism, since many believed it was the bishop’s duty to die courageously with his flock. To this he replied that “the Lord commanded us in the persecution to depart and to flee; and both taught that this should be done, and Himself did it. For as the crown is given of the condescension of God, and cannot be received unless the hour comes for accepting it, whosoever abiding in Christ departs for a while does not deny his faith, but waits for the time.” (De lapsis 10)

Cyprian’s time came in the next persecution, which broke out in the reign of Valerian in 256. In late August of 258, he was arrested and tried before the proconsul of Africa, Galerius Maximus. The record of this interrogation survives, since the early Christians preserved copies of the trials of the martyrs whenever they could. This was done not only for the sake of record keeping; the accounts of martyrs’ death, including trial records such as this one, were actually read out to the faithful on their feast days as part of the celebration of Mass. Here then is the transcript of St Cyprian’s interrogation.

(A page of a 15th century Spanish copy of the letters of St Cyprian. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)

Galerius Maximus proconsul Cypriano episcopo dixit: “Tu es Thascius Cyprianus?” Cyprianus episcopus respondit: “Ego sum.” Galerius Maximus proconsul dixit: “Tu Papam te sacrilegae mentis hominibus praebuisti?” Cyprianus Episcopus respondit: “Ego.” Galerius Maximus proconsul dixit: “Jusserunt te sacratissimi Imperatores caeremoniari.” Cyprianus Episcopus dixit: “Non facio.” Galerius Maximus ait: “Consule tibi.” Cyprianus Episcopus respondit: “Fac quod tibi praeceptum est. In re tam justa nulla est consultatio.” Galerius Maximus collocutus cum concilio sententiam vix aegre dixit verbis hujusmodi: “Diu sacrilega mente vixisti, et plurimos nefariae tibi conspirationis homines aggregasti, et inimicum te diis Romanis et sacris legibus constituisti, nec te pii et sacratissimi principes Valerianus et Gallienus Augusti, et Valerianus nobilissimus Caesar, ad sectam caeremoniarum suarum revocare potuerunt. Et ideo cum sis nequissimorum criminum auctor et signifer deprehensus: eris ipse documento his, quos scelere tuo tecum aggregasti: sanguine tuo sancietur disciplina.” Et his dictis, decretum ex tabella recitavit: “Thascium Cyprianum gladio animadverti placet.” Cyprianus Episcopus dixit: “Deo gratias.”

Galerius Maximus the proconsul said to Cyprian the bishop: “Are you Thascius Cyprianus?” Cyprian the bishop answered: “I am.” Galerius: “You have offered yourself as the bishop to men of irreligious mind?” Cyprian: “I have.”  Galerius: “The most sacred Emperors have commanded you to conform to offer the rites.” Cyprian: “I refuse.”  Galerius: “Take heed for yourself.” Cyprian: “Do as you are ordered; in so just a case, there is no need for deliberation.” Galerius, after briefly conferring with his council, with little reluctance pronounced the sentence as follows: “You have long lived an irreligious life, and have gathered to yourself a great many men in an unlawful association, and set yourself as an enemy to the Roman gods and the sacred laws; nor have the pious, most sacred emperors Valerian and Gallienus been able to bring you back to the way of their religious observances And therefore, since you have been apprehended as the author and leader of most wicked crimes, you yourself shall be an example to those whom you have gathered to yourself in your crime; the punishment shall be ratified in your blood.” Then he read the sentence from a written tablet: “It pleases (the court) that Thascius Cyprianus be executed with the sword.” The bishop Cyprian said: “Thanks be to God.”

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