The plague of Cyprian (251 – 270CE)
At its height this plague, so called in deference to St Cyprian, bishop of Carthage who witnessed and wrote about the disease, accounted for around 5,000 deaths a day in Rome alone. The outbreak began around 250CE, was at its height until 266 and was still a threat in 270. Rather like the earlier Antonine plague it is thought to have been a variant of smallpox.
Cyprian, in his essay appropriately entitled de mortalitate, provided us with our best account of the symptoms and ravaging effect of the pandemic. “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 the loss of the body, either the gait is enfeebled, or the hearing is obstructed, or the sight darkened – is profitable of a proof of faith”. You may think so, sir, but I think I would just prefer to avoid it altogether.
The plague was not just contained to Rome. It was virulent in the African provinces of the Roman Empire, particularly around Carthage and Egypt. Some think that up to two-thirds of the population of Alexandria died from the plague. Pontius of Carthage wrote of its effects on the populace of Carthage, “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 turn would be theirs, demanded the pity of the passers-by for themselves…” It was no respecter of rank, accounting for two emperors, Hostillian and Claudius II Gothicus.
Inevitably, in an age where there was no real understanding of the cause of diseases, those of a peccatogenetic predisposition looked for a scapegoat to blame. The age was a period of intense conflict between the dominant pagan authorities and the Christian communities. Inevitably, the Christians were blamed. The plague’s outbreak coincided with the proclamation of the emperor Decian requiring everyone to make a sacrifice to the Roman gods and for the well-being of the Emperor, to perform the ritual before a magistrate and to obtain a signed and witnessed certificate, confirming the fact. Those who disobeyed faced prosecution and Arnobius, in defending his faith against the allegations, argued, “that a plague was brought upon the earth after the Christian religion came into the world and after it revealed the mysteries of the hidden truth” and that it was a symbol of the anger of the pagan gods.
Cyprian’s essay showed that the Christians viewed the plague as a portent of the end of the world. Even though the plague was accounting for Christians as well as pagans, he claimed that only the Christians had nothing to fear. Dionysus, bishop of Alexandria, wrote that it was a period of unimaginable joy for Christians. The fact that even Roman emperors were dying from the disease and the pagan priests had nothing to contribute towards preventing its inexorable progress only strengthened the Christian position. They positively embraced death, seeing it as a form of martyrdom for their faith.
One consequence of this rather perverse theology was that the plague strengthened Christianity’s tenuous foothold in the Roman empire. Another was that everyday scenes of putrefying bodies and burning pyres of corpses had a profound effect on the early Christian descriptions of hell.