Plague of Cyprian

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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 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[edit]

In 250 to 266, at the height of the outbreak, 5,000 people a day were said to be dying in Rome. Cyprian's biographer, Pontius the deacon, 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, the 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 AD 270: in the fulsome 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". And "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."


Historian William McNeill asserts that the earlier Antonine Plague (166–80) and the Plague of Cyprian (251–270) were outbreaks of two different diseases, one of smallpox and one of measles, although not necessarily in that order. The severe devastation to the European population from the two plagues may indicate that people had no previous exposure—or immunity—to either disease. The modern consensus, however, seems to favor the theory that both outbreaks were of smallpox.[8] This latter view seems more likely given a recent study which was only able to trace the evolution of modern measles to the 5th century.[9] The study, which used molecular clock analysis to model the evolution of the modern measles virus (MeV) concluded that it diverged from its most similar relative in the Paramyxoviridae family (a pathogen of cattle known as RPV) at the end of the 11th century. The study also noted that a divergence date somewhere between the 5th and 7th centuries falls within 95% of credible intervals. This happens to coincide with several known epidemics in the mid 5th century which describe measles-like symptoms. However, McNeill's theory cannot completely be discounted, since the study is based on the assumption that MeV evolved directly from its relative, RPV; the conclusion being that if it did so, it most likely occurred in the 11th century, perhaps as early as the 5th–7th centuries. However, MeV and RPV may be related in another way. The authors of the study alternatively postulated that a more distant common ancestor of both MeV and RPV may have been the actual point of divergence (i.e. cross-species transmission); the appearance of this measles-like ancestor possibly dating as far back as some of the earliest urban civilizations (3000–2500 BC).


  1. ^ The power of plagues by Irwin W. Sherman
  2. ^ Zosimus New History I.16, 21, 31
  3. ^ Pontius of Carthage, Life of Cyprian. Translated by 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. Translated by 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. ^ Furuse, Y.; Suzuki, A.; Oshitani, H. (2010). "Origin of measles virus: Divergence from rinderpest virus between the 11th and 12th centuries". Virology Journal 7: 52. doi:10.1186/1743-422X-7-52. PMC 2838858. PMID 20202190.  edit

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