The Church in Carthage during the Time of St. Cyprian
by Adara Hinton

St. Cyprian was the bishop of Carthage from 250 until 258 CE. Little is known about his life prior to his conversion to Christianity as the biographer of his life and deacon, Pontius, starts his work, Vita Cypriani, from St. Cyprian’s conversion to Christianity and ends Vita Cypriani with the martyrdom of St. Cyprian in 258 CE. What is known concerning St. Cyprian’s early life comes from the scanty details given by Pontius in Vita Cypriani and the few details that can be gleaned from the many works written by St. Cyprian himself. Pontius relates that Cyprian was converted to Christianity by Caecilianus, and shortly thereafter he became bishop of Carthage because God judged he should be and men favored him for that office although he was yet new to the faith. In Vita Cypriani Pontius also refers to Cyprian by Thascius, his cognomen. A reading of Epistulae Cypriani reveals St. Cyprian’s full name, Caecilius Cyprianus Thascius. Pontius also records that Cyprian was a man of wealth who freely distributed his goods to needy people to maintain the peace. In the sparse information given about Cyprian’s early life, Pontius states that study and the liberal arts permeated Cyprian’s pious heart. [1]

From an examination of St. Cyprian’s own writings, the picture of a well-educated man is confirmed. St. Cyprian himself discusses his profession as a rhetor in ad Donatum 2. Scholars who study the works of St. Cyprian note the exuberant, even exaggerated rhetorical style of his writings. [2] Another important theme revealed in St. Cyprian’s letters is his relationship with his deacon, Pontius, presbyter, and members of his church. The type of relationship painted between St. Cyprian and his church is reminiscent of the relationship of patronus and cliens so entrenched in Roman society. St. Cyprian sees his deacon, presbyter, and church members as his inferiors in regards to church hierarchy; therefore, he fully expects and knows that his orders and wishes will be accomplished. The careful reader of Pontius’ Vita Cypriani and the letters and treatises of St. Cyprian is left with the image of a man who in was a highly articulate, well-educated, propertied son of a well-to-do Carthaginian family, a man with his own innate sense of his social position as a persona insignis. [3]

St. Cyprian wrote countless letters and treatises regarding the important issues facing Christians of his day. He was bishop during hostile and controversial times for Christians not only from forces within the Christian world but also from forces without. In Carthage there were two sects of Christianity, the Caecilianists and Donatists, vying for power and control causing internal problems in the Christian community. In 250 the Emperor Decius desired all Romans to make sacrifices to the state in order to foster patriotism and allegiance to Rome. Due to their faith, some Christians refused thus starting the Decian persecution of the Christian community. The Decian persecution prompted St. Cyprian to voluntarily flee Carthage so that he could save his life and govern the church from exile. It is in his time in exile that the majority of his letters and treatises are written. The topics of his letters and treatises regard the administration of the church, the purpose of the church, and his solutions for dealing with the results of the persecution. Although St. Cyprian references the church countless times in his work, rarely does he provide a physical description of the church, and yet it is obvious from his writings that people are in fact meeting in a physical church. Thus the question arises, what is the appearance of the physical church building during the time of St. Cyprian?

There are no known remains of churches from Carthage dating to the time of St. Cyprian. The grand basilicas of Carthage date to the fourth and fifth centuries CE. St. Cyprian lived at a time when Christianity was not yet a state sanctioned religion. It had not yet been accepted and adopted by the Emperor. Therefore, it had not learned to use the imperial law courts which would later establish the legitimacy of the Catholic sect of Christianity. The influence of the imperial law courts also prompted the adoption of the basilicas the architectural form for Christian churches. [4] The earliest attested meeting places for churches are private houses which Paul mentions on three different occasions in his Letters.

The churches of Asia salute you. Aquila and Priscilla salute you much in the Lord, with the Church that is in their house, with whom I also lodge. [5]

Salute the brethren who are at Ladodicea, and Nymphas, and the Church that is in his house. [6]

And the Church which is in their house. Salute Epenetus, my beloved: who is the first fruits of Asia in Christ Bible. [7]

It can be deduced from literary texts that Cyprian’s church building must have originated as a private house (domus ecclesiae, domus dei, or aula ecclesiae). Unfortunately, archaeologists have not discovered any domus ecclesiae in Carthage itself, and there are precious few scattered throughout the Roman world. Scholars suggest that the church houses belonging to Carthage during the third century were more elaborate buildings than the few contemporary domus ecclesiae found in other parts of the Roman world like that at Dura-Europos. [8] The closest identified domus ecclesiae to Cyprian’s hometown of Carthage dates to the 4th century and comes from Hippo Regius. [9] There is also literary evidence for a domus ecclesiae in North Africa from a court record of 303 CE which records the search of a local church building and describes its dining hall (triclinium), a library, and a large cache of clothing, apparently for charitable distributioin; however no description is given of the assembly room proper. [10]

If Cyprian’s wealth and influence in Carthage are taken in to account, one can imagine a nice large peristyle house that takes up an entire city block decorated with elaborate mosaic floors and stucco typical of the second to third centuries CE of Carthage functioning as the domus ecclesiae for his church. Since Cyprian would have had a nice house due to his standing, perhaps part of giving almost all of his wealth away mentioned by Pontius in Vita Cypriani involved converting his own sizeable house into the domus ecclesiae for his congregation. Because Cyprian was a powerful man in Carthage, he had already established a relationship with members of lower social status than he in which he functioned as their patron and they his clients. Following Roman social mores, his clients would have visited him in his house on a regular basis to gain benefactions from him. It is possible that this relationship between patronus and cliens established in Cyprian’s pre-Christian life continued once Cyprian became bishop and extended to the Christian population of Carthage. [11] Some of the original functions of the rooms of the house would have been retained even as use as a church. The triclinium or oecus could have still been used for dining except in a religious context such as that of the Eucharist and Agape. [12] The church members could have been received into the house just as previous clients had been. They would have congregated in the large reception room and perhaps have even had church services there. If church members had individual issues to discuss with the bishop, they could have done so in his office.

In all of St. Cyprian’s letters and treatises which all concern the church it seems astounding that he only twice mentions its physical characteristics. He discusses a tribunal or pulpit in one letter and a place for the clergy in another.

There is no place more proper for him to be stationed than on the pulpit, that is to say on the tribunal of the church. In this way, thanks to his elevated position, he may be readily seen by his honor and there may read to them those commandments. [13]

The sacred and venerated congestum of the clergy. [14]

It is feasible that with the burgeoning number of members the reception room became too crowded, prompting church services to be moved into a larger room of the house such as the peristyle. The tribunal which Cyprian mentions could have easily been set up in the peristyle elevating the speaker above the listeners. Many of these large houses belonging to the second and third centuries CE contained numerous cisterns which would provide for the water for a baptismal font for new members. The baptismal font could have been built in relative proximity to the cistern which is found in the peristyle. The decoration of the house would have consisted of floor mosaics possibly containing Christian themes and iconography. The many bedrooms of such a large house could have served as sleeping quarters for the clergy and church aristocracy. There may have been some modification to the private house in order to make it function more appropriately for its new purpose as a domus ecclesiae as some scholars have suggested. [15] Perhaps the distinct area for the clergy mentioned by St. Cyprian reflects an alteration on the building of the church. To what extent changes were made on the domus ecclesiae in Carthage during the bishopric of St. Cyprian is undeterminable. However, it seems likely that the church in St. Cyprian’s day was a large peristyle house characteristic of houses belonging to the wealthy in Carthage which may have been altered to accommodate the needs of its change in function from a private house to a place of worship for Christians.

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Annotated Bibliography: Primary Sources
43. The Letters of St. Cyprian Vol.1 (Ancient Christian Writers). Westminster: Newman Press, 1983.
In his letters, St. Cyprian writes to his deacon and presbyter primarily about how the church should be dealt with in his absence. He advises them on religious matters. On occasion references about his life can also be gathered from his writing. Very rarely does he reference the physical church. This is helpful to teachers because it provides a context of the political situation of the time.

44. The Letters of St. Cyprian of Carthage, Vol. 2 (Ancient Christian Writers). New York: Paulist Press, 1983.
In his letters, St. Cyprian writes to his deacon and presbyter primarily about how the church should be dealt with in his absence. He advises them on religious matters. On occasion references about his life can also be gathered from his writing. Very rarely does he reference the physical church. This is helpful to teachers because it provides a context of the political situation of the time.

46. The Letters of St. Cyprian of Carthage, Vol. 3 (Ancient Christian Writers). New York: Paulist Press, 1983.
In his letters, St. Cyprian writes to his deacon and presbyter primarily about how the church should be dealt with in his absence. He advises them on religious matters. On occasion references about his life can also be gathered from his writing. Very rarely does he reference the physical church. This is helpful to teachers because it provides a context of the political situation of the time.

47. The Letters of St. Cyprian of Carthage, Vol. 4 (Ancient Christian Writers). New York: Paulist Press, 1983.
In his letters, St. Cyprian writes to his deacon and presbyter primarily about how the church should be dealt with in his absence. He advises them on religious matters. On occasion references about his life can also be gathered from his writing. Very rarely does he reference the physical church. This is helpful to teachers because it provides a context of the political situation of the time.

Holy Bible: Contemporary English Version
. New York: American Bible Society, 2000.
The letters of Paul provide references to where early church meetings were held. This information is helpful to the teacher in reconstructing the evolution of the church from house church (domus ecclesiae) to basilica.

Jerome, Saint. On Illustrious Men: Saint Jerome on Illustrious Men (Fathers of the Church). Washington: Catholic University of America Press, 1999.
St. Jerome provides a brief description of St. Cyprian’s life as it relates to the other church fathers who both precede and follow him. This is helpful to students in quickly familiarizing them with St. Cyprian.

Pontius: Early Christian Biographies (Fathers of the Church). Washington: Catholic University of America Press, 2002.
Pontius provides most of the biographical information about St. Cyprian’s life starting with his conversion to Christianity through his martyrdom. He provides a few details and references to the physical church. He is helpful to both students and teachers who wish to better familiarize themselves with St. Cyprian.

St. Cyprian Of Carthage. On the Church: Select Treatises (St. Vladimir's Seminary Press "Popular Patristics" Series). New York: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 2007.
In his treatises, St. Cyprian writes deals with the problems facing the church due to schismatics and persecutions. They provide a historical context to the problems facing the church; however, he presents no physical details as regards the church. This is helpful to teachers wishing to learn more about St. Cyprian ideology.

II. Web Resources

"CATHOLIC ENCYCLOPEDIA: St. Cyprian of Carthage." NEW ADVENT: Home. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/04583b.htm (accessed June 30, 2010).
This detailed website provides information about the life of St. Cyprian, schism in the church, different sects of Christianity, St. Cyprian’s writings, St. Cyprian’s death, church ideology, and historical context. It is geared more towards teachers because it is rife in details.

Iconoclasm, zantine. "Cyprian - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia." Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St._Cyprian (accessed June 30, 2010).
This wikipage provides basic information about St. Cyprian’s life and death as well as his writings. The headings make it student friendly.

III. Secondary Resources for Students
Ennabli, Liliane. Christian Carthage. Carthage: l'APPC, 2001.
This travel brochure provides a wonderful introduction and overview of Christian Carthage. It supplies a brief historical overview of the city as well as information regarding clergy and church buildings. The brochure is rife with pictures of Christian art and basilicas. Due to its brevity, this is a wonderful resource for students.

Fahey, Michael A.. Cyprian and the Bible: A study in third-century exegesis (Beitrage zur Geschichte der biblischen Hermeneutik). Tubingen: Mohr, 1971.
This book opens with a short synopsis of Cyprian’s life and a chronology and description of Cyprian’s works. It is an excellent resource for students to use to familiarize themselves with St. Cyprian.

Hinchliff, Peter Bingham. Cyprian of Carthage and the Unity of the Christian Church. London: G. Chapman, 1974.
This book brings the action of Cyprian’s life and death alive. It is interspersed with chapters about Carthage and the relgious, historical, and political situation found in the city. Due to the vividness of the language, this is an excellent resource to help students learn about St. Cyprian and get excited.

Laurance, John D.. Priest As Type of Christ: The Leader of the Eucharist in Salvation Hist According to Cyprian of Carthage (American University Studies Series VII, Theology and Religion). Bern: Peter Lang Pub Inc, 1984.
This text provides a great brief introduction to the life and writings of St. Cyprian. It is best suited for students.

Religions of the Ancient World: A Guide (Harvard University Press Reference Library). Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2004.
This is a good student source because it offers a quick overview of the religious organization and hierarchy within the church. It also discusses the development of bishopric and power, organizational structure of the church starting with the domus ecclesiae.

Sage, Michael M. Cyprian (Patristic monograph series). Cambridge: Philadelphia Patristic Foundation : [Sole Distributors, Greeno, Hadden], 1975.
Chapter 7 provides a condensed version of Pontius Vita Cypriani along with added details concerning his life gleaned from his letters. Since it syncretizes the information and also gives a historical synopsis, it is a wonderful source for students.

IV. Secondary Resources for Teachers
Bowes, Kim. Private Worship, Public Values, and Religious Change in Late Antiquity. 1 ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008.
Chapter 1 (From home to house church) describes changes in buildings both private and public used for worship by the Christians. It details a lot of great information about domus ecclesiae; thefore, it is best for teachers.

Burns, J. Patout Jr.. Cyprian the Bishop (Routledge Early Church Monographs). 1 ed. New York: Routledge, 2002.
This text provides an in depth discussion of the history of the Decian persecution during time of Cyprian, Cyprian’s views as discernible through his writings in his writings, church councils convened during St. Cyprian’s bishopric and his influence therein. As this text is detailed, it best suits the teacher.

Carthage: L'histoire, sa trace et son echo : [exposition] les Musees de la ville de Paris, Musee du Petit Palais, 9 mars-2 juillet 1995. Paris: Ministere Des Affaires Etrangeres, 1995.
This text is in French; however, Chapter 6 provides wonderful pictures of Christian art and architecture along with reconstructions of basilicas from Carthage. The language of the text suggests it is more appropriate for a teacher.

MacMullen, Ramsay. The Second Church: Popular Christianity A.D. 200-400 (Writings from the Greco-Roman World Supplements Series). Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2009.
Chapter 3 is devoted to North Africa and traces the history of the church there. It also notes the types of buildings used for churches and the function of the buildings. It point out the focus on martyria in churches in North Africa. This text is best suited to the teacher due to its scholarly nature.

Micklem, Philp Arthur. Church and empire in Roman Africa,. St. Leonards-on-Sea: Budd And Gillatt, 1964.
Chapter 3 of this text provides a wonderful history of the church in Roman Africa. It supplies details of St. Cyprian’s involvement within the church, relationship to the church, and martyrdom. This text is best suited to the teacher.

Rankin, David Ivan. From Clement to Origen: The Social And Historical Context of the Church Fathers. Hampshire, England: Ashgate Publishing, 2006.
In this text, Cyprian is placed chronologically between other church fathers. A brief historical context is given to for the time in which St. Cyprian lives. His writings are discussed as a reaction to the times. Cyprian’s purpose for writing and the rhetoric of his writing are also noted. Cyprian’s beliefs about his own position and power within the church as relating to other clergy members are detailed. This source is chalked full of details and is more apt for the teacher.

The Early Christian World (Volume 2). New York: Routledge, 2001.
Chapter 27 provides a great description of domus ecclesiae and the architectural adaptations that occurred within the church buildings. The author also posits what St. Cyprian’s church may have looked like based on historical and literary details. This text is best for the teacher because the information is compact.

White, Michael L.. Building God's House in the Roman World: Architectural Adaptation Among Pagans, Jews, and Christians (Asor Library of Biblical and Near Eastern Arch). Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990.
Chapter 2 provides information about house churches. It approaches the development of the house church by describing the changing views of scholarship in the evolution from domus ecclesiae to basilica; therefore, it is most appropriate for the teacher.

Yasin, Ann Marie. Saints and Church Spaces in the Late Antique Mediterranean: Architecture, Cult, and Community (Greek Culture in the Roman World). 1 ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009.
Chapter 1 describes how and what space was used by early Christians for worship. It also describes how the space of the house may have been used for worship which maybe difficult for students to grasp making this item more suitable for the teacher.

  1. ^ See Pontius' Life of St. Cyprian for a full description of his life
  2. ^ David Ivan Rankin, From Clement to Origen: the Social and Historical Context of the Chruch Fathers (Hampshire, England, 2001, 73.
  3. ^ Ibid.
  4. ^ The Early Christian World (Volume 2) (New York, 2001), 727.
  5. ^ See the Holy Bible Corinthians 16:19
  6. ^ Ibid., Colossians 4:15
  7. ^ Ibid., Romans 16:5
  8. ^ Early Christian, 717.
  9. ^ Ramsay MacMullen, The Second Church: Popular Christianity A.D. 200-400 (Atlanta, 2009), 52.
  10. ^ Early Christian, 718.
  11. ^ Kim Bowes, Private Worship, Public Values, and Religious Change in Late Antiquity (New York, 2008), 49.
  12. ^ Michael L. White, (Baltimore, 1990), 16.
  13. ^ See St. Cyprian's Letter 39.
  14. ^ See St. Cyprian's Letter 59.
  15. ^ Bowes, Private Worship, 49.