Pandemics and Economics in History #4

Change Born in the Plague of Cyprian

Pandemics and Economics #4: Change Born in the Plague of Cyprian

In the year 249 of the Common Era, a highly contagious, deadly disease began spreading, first in Ethiopia and across Northern Africa, then into other parts of the Roman Empire. Cyprian (c200-258 CE), Bishop of Carthage, described the infection and sermonized for followers. His work, “On Mortality,” has been much discussed by scholars over the centuries. The fame of his writing led to Cyprian’s name being attached to the plague.

In a 2015 article, historian Kyle Harper links four areas of change to the Plague of Cyprian: Financial, socio-political, geo-political, and cultural. (Harper, “Pandemics,” p.250)

Harper describes a series of changes in the Roman Empire’s monetary and financial systems. These include inflation, a shift away from a silver-based money system, during which public coinage functioned through “public faith in its exchange value, rather than the actual value of its precious metal content.” This was followed by erosion of public trust in the monetary system, greater reliance on the value of gold itself in exchange, and failed attempts at currency reform. (Harper, p.251)

It is unclear how much of this change can be attributed directly to the plague, but Harper writes that “the timing of the collapse aligns with our plague,” adding: “not only financial institutions, but the balance sheets of wealthy creditors, would have been submerged by the collapse.” (Harper, p.252)

So financial shifts led to at least one set of socio-political shifts.

Meanwhile, the empire faced external enemies and lost some of its power to invasion, which they were less able to fend off, due to the plague and related losses.

Finally, Harper writes, “civic paganism began to lose traction, while the Christian community achieved unprecedented expansion.” (Harper, p.256)

Opening Space, New Networks

Other writers attribute the rise of Christianity to specific religious ideals, often relying on Cyprian’s writing. Mostly commonly mentioned are an emphasis on charity, especially toward those afflicted by disease, and notions of suffering and afterlife with relevance for the pandemic.

Candida Moss, a professor of New Testament and early Christianity, for example, notes that common experiences of death and disposal of bodies at this time “influenced early Christian descriptions of hell and the afterlife,” adding: “Now that hell had become a place on earth, Christians were increasingly eager to avoid it in the afterlife. The epidemic that seemed like the end of the world actually promoted the spread of Christianity.”

Harper does not discount these influences. But he sees other forces at work as well

It is not that the pandemic sparked a crisis of malaise and disbelief, but that its effects undermined the stability of a religious culture that was embedded in society….It was the crisis of civic polytheism that opened the space for the construction of new networks of patronage and community.– Harper, p.258

Employing twenty-first century skills and 1700 years of hindsight give historians like Moss and Harper perspectives on the Plague of Cyprian that we cannot have when considering the Plague of Covid-19. But we can consider the kinds of change Harper outlines, and the meaning-making that Moss describes, and explore ways in which money and power may be shifting in this pandemic and what that is shaking loose in cultural life. And, because we are in the middle of it, we have the opportunity to ask:

  • Will any new networks of patronage and community be the result of happenstance alone?
  • Or can we intentionally choose what is constructed?
  • Have a hand in what is destabilized?

I confess, again, that I’m an amateur in these areas and only hope that these musings contribute wider perspectives for our conversations on Community thru Covid.


Very general reference on Plague of Cyprian

Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage. On Mortality. Geeky link to a translation. Also found in books such as The Fathers of the Church: St. Cyprian Treatises (Catholic University of America Press, 1958, 2007).

Harper, Kyle. “Pandemics and passages to late antiquity: rethinking the plague of c.249-270 described by Cyprian.” Journal of Roman Archaeology 28(1):223-260 (2015). Available via Kyle Harper is Professor of Classics and Letters and Provost Emeritus at The University of Oklahoma. He is author of The Fate of Rome.

Moss, Candida. “How An Apocalyptic Plague Helped Spread Christianity” at CNN Religion Blog. Candida Moss is a professor of New Testament and early Christianity at the University of Notre Dame and author of The Myth of Persecution.

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