Type of Persecution

Nature of Conflict

Primary Sources

The Life and Passion of Cyprian

Historical Context

Cyprian’s martyrdom takes place during the reign of Valerian, an emperor famous for the intensity of his persecution of Christians. The emperor sends an edict to Carthage (modern day Tunisia) not to persecute individual Christians, but instead to attack the institution of the Church. Meetings of the Church were forbidden, and the priests were exiled from their congregations. This was the initial case for Cyprian. Soon after, Valerian was convinced by the Roman Senate that the Church was not dying quickly enough. Another edict was issued, stating that all Christian clergy were to be killed, and Roman citizens who were Christians were to lose all of their property and honor. It is against this backdrop that Cyprian was called back to Carthage and promptly martyred, becoming the first in North Africa to “imbue his priestly crown with blood of martyrdom” (The Life and Passion).


Two texts stand out as the orthodox accounts of the martyrdom of Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage. The first is The Life and Passion of Cyprian, written by Cyprian’s deacon, Pontius. The other is Acts of Cyprian the Bishop. This summary of the martyrdom of the Carthaginian bishop is based upon The Acts of Cyprian, with the significant differences between the two being highlighted.

The Life and Passion of Cyprian makes mention of the journey to the praetorium, where Cyprian was to be tried before the proconsul Galerius Maximus. On his journey, Cyprian passes by a race track, paralleling his own race to martyrdom, and becomes drenched with sweat, necessitating that he change his clothing before being presented before the proconsul. Many martyrdom accounts draw the comparison between martyrs and athletes, beginning with the use of an author claiming to be Paul using this imagery when discussing his upcoming death to Timothy. From here, The Life and Passion offers a succinct pronunciation of guilt and a sentence of death by decapitation.

However, the Acts extends this narrative to allow Cyprian to answer the proconsul Galerius Maximus’s questions about the saint’s faith, his unwillingness to sacrifice to the emperor, and his leadership of the Christian sect. Cyprian is then offered the opportunity to reconsider his devotion, before being given the same sentence. Cyprian responds in the Acts with “Thanks be to God,” which is not in The Life and Passion. After this pronunciation of glory, Cyprian is joined by other Christians from the crowd to be martyred. Cyprian’s eyes are then covered. This small act was meant to draw the comparison between Cyprian and the Apostle Paul. The Life and Passion goes on to celebrate Cyprian as the first priestly martyr in North Africa, and Pontius waxes theological over the implications of Cyprian’s passion, whereas the Acts provides the details in which Cyprian was buried. Galerius Maximus reportedly died a few days later.


Cyprian’s martyrdom was significant for several reasons. First, he is remembered as the first Christian clergy martyr in North Africa. As many communities drew upon their local martyrs for the purpose of finding community identity, Cyprian served as a distinctly African martyr that the Christians there used as a model on which they based their lives.

Second, Cyprian’s theology and martyrdom served as galvanizing forces for the Donatist church, which stressed purity and careful dealings with members of the Church who (they thought) had buckled under the pressure of persecution by the Roman authorities. The Donatist church produced their own version of the deeds of Cyprian, entitled The Donatist Passion of Cyprian. Details are changed from the Life and Acts, and it is obvious the author had access to the prior two books. This creation of a separate text that tells a very similar story is indicative over the struggle between two churches to claim such a powerful martyr as their own.

Finally, Cyprian’s martyrdom is very reminiscent of Paul’s, drawing comparison between him and the great apostle. This marks him as a particularly powerful and influential martyr in early Christianity.


Acta Cypriani. Pages 193–231 in Atti e Passioni dei Martiri. Edited by A.A.R. Bastiaensen. Milan: A. Mondadori, 1987. 

Benedict, David, and Henry C. Graves. "The Catholic Discipline Compared with That Of The Donatists." In History of the Donatists, with Notes, 103-115. Memorial ed. Pawtucket, RI: Printed for M.M. Benedict, Providence, R.I., by Nickerson, Sibley &, 1875.

Cyprian. The Letters of St. Cyprian of Carthage. Translated by Graeme Wibler Clarke.  Vol. 43. Paulist Press, 1984.

Dunn, Geoffrey D. "Heresy and Schism according to Cyprian of Carthage." The Journal of Theological Studies 55.2 (2004): 551-574.

Faulkner, John Alfred. "The Crowning." In Cyprian: The Churchman, 198-224. Cincinnati, OH: Jennings and Graham, 1906

Poole, Geo. Ayliffe. "Chapter XVII." In The Life and times of Saint Cyprian, 273-287. Oxford: J.H. Parker, J.G.F. and J. Rivington, 1840.

Roberts, Alexander. "The Life and Passion of Cyprian, Bishop and Martyr." In The Ante-Nicene Fathers: Translations of the Writings of the Fathers down to A.D. 325, 267-274. American Reprint of the Edinburgh ed. Vol. 5. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmanns, 1885.

Sanday, William. The Cheltenham List of the Canonical Books of the Old and New Testament and of the Writings of Cyprian. 1891.

Tilley, Maureen A. "The Donatist Passion of Cyprian." In Donatist Martyr Stories: The Church in Conflict in Roman North Africa, 1-5. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1996.

Image Credit

This image is public domain due to its age. Source: Wikimedia Commons




“Cyprian,” Mapping the Martyrs, accessed September 21, 2020,