Plague of Cyprian: Another Eye-Witness



In the 2015 issue of the Journal of Roman Archaeology, I published a study of the much neglected Plague of Cyprian, a pandemic caused by an unknown disease that raged in the Roman Empire in the AD 250s and 260s. (The Atlantic had some great coverage of my article here, and I just published a broader piece about infectious disease and Roman history in the new issue of Daedalus). In the study, I claimed to have gathered all the ancient evidence. Oops. All such claims are provisional, and I’m happy to report the discovery of an important new eye-witness, hiding in the pseudepigrapha of Cyprian, in a Latin text known as the “De Laude Martyrii”: In Praise of Martyrdom. The text is a sermon delivered by a Christian in Roman Carthage. The text in general supports my hypothesis that the Plague of Cyprian was a devastating event. Here are the relevant passages in my translation of the forthcoming critical text of Laetitia Ciccolini:

Or do we not see the rites of death every day? Are we not witnessing strange forms of dying? Do we not behold disasters from some previously unknown kind of plague brought on by furious and prolonged diseases? And the massacre of wasted cities? Whence we can recognize what great dignity there is in martyrdom, to whose glory even the pestilence is beginning to compel us.

And so that we may pass over all the rest, let us recall how great a glory it is to come to Christ without stain, to be a colleague in his passion, to reign in all eternity with the Lord, to be absent from the looming destruction of this age, and not to share the common fate of others amidst the bloody destruction of ravaging diseases.

An addendum to my previous study will appear in the next issue of the Journal of Roman Archaeology. In the meantime, here is the draft: Cyprian additional witness.

The new testimony – in a sermon about martyrdom – tightens the connection between the Plague of Cyprian and the so-called Persecution of Decius, a notorious and novel empire-wide order to sacrifice to the pagan gods, which resulted in a dragnet that caught up many Christians who refused. Sacrificial rites were a common response to pestilence in the ancient Mediterranean world, and I draw out the possible connections between the terrifying empire-wide disease event and the empire-wide order to sacrifice.

“In Praise of Martyrdom” also emphasizes the strangeness of the disease. The text is highly rhetorical, but it does support the possibility that the pathology of this disease appeared unusual to ancient eyes.

I hope others find even more testimony to this important plague that, at least in part, triggered the “crisis of the third century.”