The Plague of Cyprian, named after the man who by AD 248 found himself Bishop of Carthage, struck in a period of history when basic facts are sometimes known barely or not at all. Yet the one fact that virtually all of our sources do agree upon is that a great pestilence defined the age between AD 249 and AD 262.
Inscriptions, papyri, archaeological remains, and textual sources collectively insist on the high stakes of the pandemic. In a recent study, I was able to count at least seven eyewitnesses, and a further six independent lines of transmission, whose testimony we can trace back to the experience of the pestilence.
What is starkly lacking, however, is a Galen. The previous century’s dumb luck of having a great and prolific doctor to guide us has run out. But, now, for the first time, we have Christian testimony. The church experienced a growth spurt during the generation of the plague, and the mortality left a deep impression in Christian memory. The pagan and Christian sources not only confirm one another. Their different tone and timbre give us a richer sense of the plague than we would otherwise possess.
The lack of a medical witness like Galen is partly compensated by the vivid account of the disease in Cyprian’s sermon on the mortality. The preacher sought to console an audience encircled by unfathomable suffering. It took no mercy on his Christians.
“The pain in the eyes, the attack of the fevers, and the ailment of all the limbs are the same among us and among the others, so long as we share the common flesh of this age.” Cyprian tried to ennoble the victims of the disease, likening their strength in pain and death to the heroic intransigence of the martyrs. Cyprian conjured the symptoms for his hearers.
These are adduced as proof of faith: that, as the strength of the body is dissolved, the bowels dissipate in a flow; that a fire that begins in the inmost depths burns up into wounds in the throat; that the intestines are shaken with continuous vomiting; that the eyes are set on fire from the force of the blood; that the infection of the deadly putrefaction cuts off the feet or other extremities of some; and that as weakness prevails through the failures and losses of the bodies, the gait is crippled or the hearing is blocked or the vision is blinded.
Cyprian’s account is central to our understanding of the disease. The pathology included fatigue, bloody stool, fever, esophageal lesions, vomiting, conjunctival hemorrhaging, and severe infection in the extremities; debilitation, loss of hearing, and blindness followed in the aftermath. We can complement this record with more isolated and frankly uncertain hints from other witnesses. According to Cyprian’s biographer, the disease was characterized by acute onset: “carrying off day by day with abrupt attack numberless people, every one from his own house.”