The Christian bishop of Carthage, Cyprian, was condemned by Roman authorities on this date and immediately beheaded.
Not one of your dubious ancient martyrs fogged with legend, Cyprian was a major public figure in his own time; dozens of epistles and treatises of his survive. An epidemic that ravaged the Roman Empire in the 250s and 260s is known from his description of it; hence it is remembered as the Plague of Cyprian.
The real-life Cyprian had different plagues to fight.
The essential challenge of Cyprian’s day — and the one that would see him to martyrdom — was the onset of anti-Christian persecution after the relative tolerance of the 240s. Cranky senator turned general Decius claimed the purple in 249 on a programme of traditional values that included a demand that all* obtain a magistrate’s certificate confirming that they had performed public sacrifice to the pagan gods. We don’t want anyone tempting divine vengeance here.
The Christian community had grown, little molested of late, to encompass many peaceable adherents who were not necessarily prepared to sell their lives over a stick of incense. Now, it fragmented under the Decian persecution — which was applied by different governors with varying levels of severity. Some Christians made the requisite sacrifices; others paid bribes to get the paperwork. Some fled to hiding: Cyprian himself did so, and some Christian ultras criticized him for failing to embrace martyrdom.
Decius died in 251, leaving the Christian minority with a controversy over how to handle the so-called lapsi who had made some concession to the idols of Rome: perspectives arrayed from the most lax (welcome everyone back with minimal hassle) to the most punitive (expel them all: this was the Novatian heresy). Cyprian had a middle-ground position in this dispute; his De Lapsis preserves his intervention, accepting readmission but under conditions of suitable penance administered by the clergy.
In such a case there remains only penitence which can make atonement. But they who take away repentance for a crime, close the way of atonement. Thus it happens that, while by the rashness of some a false safety is either promised or trusted, the hope of true safety is taken away.
But you, beloved brethren, whose fear is ready towards God, and whose mind, although it is placed in the midst of lapse, is mindful of its misery, do you in repentance and grief look into your sins; acknowledge the very grave sin of your conscience; open the eyes of your heart to the understanding of your sin, neither despairing of the Lord’s mercy nor yet at once claiming His pardon. God, in proportion as with the affection of a Father He is always indulgent and good, in the same proportion is to be dreaded with the majesty of a judge. Even as we have sinned greatly, so let us greatly lament. To a deep wound let there not be wanting a long and careful treatment; let not the repentance be less than the sin. Think you that the Lord can be quickly appeased, whom with faithless words you have denied, to whom you have rather preferred your worldly estate, whose temple you have violated with a sacrilegious contact? Think you that He will easily have mercy upon you whom you have declared not to be your God? You must pray more eagerly and entreat; you must spend the day in grief; wear out nights in watchings and weepings; occupy all your time in wailful lamentations; lying stretched on the ground, you must cling close to the ashes, be surrounded with sackcloth and filth; after losing the raiment of Christ, you must be willing now to have no clothing; after the devil’s meat, you must prefer fasting; be earnest in righteous works, whereby sins may be purged; frequently apply yourself to almsgiving, whereby souls are freed from death.
This is more or less the position the Church as a whole arrived at — a fairly liberal readmissions policy in the scheme of things. Unfortunately for Cyprian and his flock, the question would soon grow pressing once again: the emperor Valerian resumed the persecution in 257.
Cyprian was first sent into exile, then brought to Carthage for examination at a villa thronged with his supporters, who are said to have roared in support when Cyprian refused to sacrifice and demanded, “Let us be beheaded with him!”
The bishop attained his hieromartyr‘s laurels directly after the verdict, with Carthage’s Christians clamboring alongside him to the execution grounds. Afterwards, the faithful collected his remains and interred them lovingly, erecting a church over the bones that the Vandals would eventually ravage.
Even in his death under persecution, Cyprian’s biography reflects the growing weight of Christianity in Rome — not least in the fact that it was consequential enough to attract imperial backlash under the right circumstances. The reluctance of provincial magistrates to make hecatombs of their neighbors whatever the edicts demanded has been widely noted — like the proconsul Antoninus, who sent away confessing Christians who wished to solicit their own martyrdoms with the exasperated words, “if you are thus weary of your lives, is it so difficult for you to find ropes and precipices?”
“The life of Cyprian is sufficient to prove that our fancy has exaggerated the perilous situation of a Christian bishop,” Edward Gibbon wrote — a paradoxical observation to make of a martyr, but we notice that Cyprian’s noisy Christian supporters don’t seem to have been harried even in the midst of the prelate’s execution. Thereafter, “the funeral of Cyprian was publicly celebrated without receiving any interruption from the Roman magistrates; and those among the faithful, who had performed the last offices to his person and his memory, were secure from the danger of inquiry or of punishment. It is remarkable, that of so great a multitude of bishops in the province of Africa, Cyprian was the first who was esteemed worthy to obtain the crown of martyrdom.”
* Jews were exempted; Romans had respect for the antiquity of that monotheistic religion which was not extended to the novel concoctions of Christianity.