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E00916: The Life of *Cyprian (bishop and martyr of Carthage, S00411), describing his last days and martyrdom in 258, and also briefly his early life and episcopal activity, is written in Latin at Carthage, possibly by his deacon Pontius, and certainly before 359.

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posted on 2015-12-01, 00:00 authored by dlambert
Pontius of Carthage, Life of Cyprian


The author explains that he aims to describe the life of a man who not only in his death but also in his life was an incomparable example to others. Since he was a martyr and bishop he should be honoured more than those who were simply lay people and catechumens (ch. 1).

After his conversion Cyprian sells his property and distributes money to the poor (ch. 2). Because of the strength of his faith he skips the period of the catechumenate, and is quickly ordained presbyter and bishop. He imitates examples of old, was equal to Job, and so should be imitated by others (ch. 3). He is befriended by a certain presbyter Caecilianus who had earlier converted him to Christianity (ch. 4). Being still a neophyte he is elected a bishop, though he does not want to take this office (ch. 5). As a bishop he is steady, serious, but joyful. He cares for the poor (ch. 6). His fame grows and pagans want to throw him to the lions. He desires it strongly himself, but fears that the result would be to deprive the faithful, virgins, martyrs and confessors of his help. If he avoids martyrdom he does from fear of offending God by choosing the martyr’s crown instead of service to the people (ch. 7). His direction is needed in the times of persecution (ch. 8). During the plague he cares not only for Christians, but also for pagans (ch. 9). He is sent into exile (ch. 11). He is overjoyed when a vision predicts his martyrdom (ch. 12). He requests a day of delay, but a year is granted to allow him to make necessary dispositions (ch. 13).

He receives news from Rome about the martyrdom of bishop Xystus (Sixtus), and awaits his own death (ch. 14). When Cyprian is arrested, all the Christians gather to witness his death (ch. 15). The crowd follows him to the place of execution. There an officer who formerly was a Christian wants to take his clothes wet with now bloodstained sweat (ch. 16; see $E00980). The proconsul reads the sentence of death (ch. 17). Cyprian is beheaded (ch. 18; see $E00981). He is the first in Africa to obtain the two crowns, of martyrdom and priesthood (ch. 19; see $E00982).

Summary: Robert Wiśniewski.


Evidence ID


Saint Name

Cyprian, bishop of Carthage (Africa) and martyr, ob. 258 : S00411

Saint Name in Source


Type of Evidence

Literary - Hagiographical - Lives of saint


  • Latin

Evidence not before


Evidence not after


Activity not before


Activity not after


Place of Evidence - Region

Latin North Africa

Place of Evidence - City, village, etc


Place of evidence - City name in other Language(s)

Carthage Carthage Carthago Karthago قرطاج‎ Qarṭāj Mçidfa Carthage

Cult activities - Non Liturgical Practices and Customs

Composing and translating saint-related texts

Cult Activities - Miracles

Apparition, vision, dream, revelation

Cult Activities - Protagonists in Cult and Narratives

Pagans Unbaptized Christians Soldiers Officials Ecclesiastics - bishops


According to Jerome’s On Illustrious Men 68, 'Pontius, Cyprian’s deacon, sharing his exile until the day of his death, left a notable volume On the life and death of Cyprian.' Jerome, writing in 392, is the only author who names Pontius. The Life of Cyprian is mentioned also in the so-called 'Cheltenham List' of Cyprian’s works, composed in Rome in 359. Otherwise no ancient author refers to the Life of Cyprian, unlike his Acts which were widely quoted. This is why some scholars find it implausible that the Life of the most famous African bishop was actually written already in the 3rd century by a member of the Carthaginian clergy and remained unknown, all the more so as other Lives of Christian saints appear only a hundred years after Cyprian’s death (258), in the second half of the 4th century. These scholars argue that the text was in reality the work of an anonymous 4th century author. The precise dating of the text must remain uncertain, but the very limited early circulation of the Life of Cyprian is a fact. It was unknown even to Augustine who collected all Cyprian’s works, and it had no impact for the further development of hagiography. The Life of Cyprian is deeply rooted in the tradition of martyr stories, but its author aims to convince his readers that Cyprian surpassed both the heroes of the Old Testament and earlier Christian martyrs, because, unlike some of them who were just catechumens (an obvious allusion to the martyr *Perpetua and her companions), he was a bishop and, more importantly, one can learn a lot from his example even putting aside his martyrdom (qui et sine martirio habuit quae doceret - 'who even without martyrdom had that which instructs', Life of Cyprian 1.2). Thus for Pontius Cyprian’s way of life was no less important that his death. This is why he decided to describe his youth, education, conversion, ordination and especially his episcopal activity, not just his martyrdom. The only miraculous element in the Life is the vision which predicts Cyprian's martyrdom.


Editions and translations: Hartel, G., Vita Cypriani (Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Latinorum 3:1; Vienna: 1868). Harnack, A., Das Leben Cyprians von Pontius, die erste christliche Biographie (Texte und Untersuchungen 39:3; Leipzig: J.C. Hinrichs, 1913). Pellegrino, M., Ponzio, Vita e Martirio di San Cipriano (Alba: Edizioni Paoline, 1955). Bastiaensen, A.A.R. (ed.), and Canali, L. (trans.), Vita di Cipriano, in: Vite dei santi, vol. 3 (Milan: Mondadori, 1975). English translation: Wallis, R.E., The Life and Passion of Cyprian by Pontius the Deacon (Ante-Nicene Fathers 5; Buffalo NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1886).

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    Evidence -  The Cult of Saints in Late Antiquity



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