Around the year 249 CE, a pandemic broke out Africa that rapidly spread from Ethiopia to the Roman Empire. It reached Rome around 251, followed by Greece, before spreading east to Syria. The disease ebbed and flowed for the next twenty years; at its worst, the pandemic claimed as many as 5,000 people *per day* in Rome. Despite its virulence, however, historians have not been able to identify this plague. It might have been hemorrhagic fever; it might have been influenza; it might have been smallpox. Regardless, the plague was brutal and bloody.
As with many pandemics, people turned to religion to explain the outbreak and seek comfort in the midst of death. The pagan peoples of Rome interpreted the pandemic as punishment from the gods. Any sect that rejected traditional Roman worship – like Christianity – was therefore persecuted for its “role” in bringing the plague to the empire. For Cyprian, the Christian bishop of Carthage, however, the plague was proof of the superiority of Christianity over pagan religions. He argues in “De Mortalitate” that Christians were fearless in the face of disease, caring for their sick neighbors and properly burying the dead even while the Roman elites fled from their civic duties. While Cyprian’s text is partly apologetic/propagandist, his words became so influential that even today the pandemic is known as “The Plague of Cyprian.”
Below is an excerpt from Cyprian’s letter on faith. I’m including some of his graphic description of the disease so that readers understand how serious the Plague of Cyprian actually was. Note that he points out ways in which character can be judged by one’s response to the crisis.
“Although in very many of you, dearly beloved brethren, there is a steadfast mind and a firm faith, and a devoted spirit that is not disturbed at the frequency of this present mortality, but, like a strong and stable rock, rather shatters the turbulent onsets of the world and the raging waves of time, while it is not itself shattered, and is not overcome by these temptations; yet because I observe that among the people some…are standing less steadily, and are not exerting the divine and unvanquished vigor of their heart, the matter may not be disguised nor kept in silence, but as far as my feeble powers suffice with my full strength, and with a discourse gathered from the Lord’s lessons, the slothfulness of a luxurious disposition must be restrained, and he who has begun to be already a man of God and of Christ must be found worthy of God and of Christ.
“The fear and faith of God ought to make you prepared for everything: the loss of private estate, the constant and cruel harassment of your limbs by agonizing disorders, the deadly and mournful wrench from wife, from children, from departing dear ones. Let not these things be offenses to you, but battles: nor let them weaken nor break the Christian faith, but rather show forth his strength in the struggle, since all the injury inflicted by present troubles is to be despised in the assurance of future blessings. Unless the battle has preceded, there cannot be a victory: when there shall have been, in the onset of battle, the victory, then the crown is given to the victors. For the helmsman is recognized in the tempest; in the warfare the soldier is proved. It is a wanton display when there is no danger. Struggle in adversity is the trial of the truth. The tree which is deeply founded in its root is not moved by the onset of winds, and the ship which is compacted of solid timbers is beaten by the waves and is not shattered; and when the threshing-floor brings out the grain, the strong and robust grains despise the winds, while the empty chaff is carried away by the blast that falls upon it.
This trial [of the plague], 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 fasciae; that the intestines are shaken with a continual vomiting; that the eyes are on fire with the flow of 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! How sublime, 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 bravely showing forth our faith, and by enduring suffering, we may go forward to Christ by the narrow way that Christ trod and receive the reward of His life and faith according to His own judgment!
Many of our people die in this mortality, that is, many of our people are liberated from this world. This mortality…is a departure to salvation for God’s servants.
And further, beloved brethren, what is it, what a great thing is it, how pertinent, how necessary, that pestilence and plague which seems horrible and deadly, searches out the righteousness of each one, and examines the minds of the human race, to see whether they who are in health tend the sick; whether relations affectionately love their kindred; whether masters pity their languishing servants; whether physicians do not forsake the beseeching patients; whether the fierce suppress their violence; whether the rapacious can quench the ever insatiable ardor of their raging avarice even by the fear of death; whether the proud bend their neck; whether the wicked soften their boldness; whether, when their dear ones perish, the rich even then give away anything.”
Source: Translated by Robert Ernest Wallis. From Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 5. Edited by Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1886.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. <http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/050707.htm>