Rethinking the Plague of Cyprian: Pandemics and Passages to Late Antiquity

By Kyle Harper

Journal of Roman Archaeology – forthcoming (2015)

Roman Empire full map

Introduction: Pandemic events are surpassingly rare in human history. Yet the period we know as late antiquity could be considered the age of pandemic disease. The period was bookended by the Antonine Plague that erupted in the middle of the 160s and the sixth-century Justinianic Plague. Modern interest in these pandemics has waxed and waned. It was long a matter of course that these events played a major role in the fate of the RomanEmpire. In the mid-twentieth century, however, attention subsided. Historical demography struggled to make inroads in the discipline of ancient history. In the case of the Antonine Plague, a critical article of J. F. Gilliam turned focus away from the disease for a generation. Only in the last twenty years, with the rise of historical demography in ancient studies, and a broader interest in environmental history, have the Antonine and Justinianic plagues received their proper due. Attention has focused on the epidemiology and impact of these health events. The Antonine Plague is most plausibly identified as smallpox, based on the presentation of the disease described by the great contemporary physician Galen. It should qualify as the first pandemic in all of human history. The Antonine Plague struck the Roman Empire at the apex of its power and prosperity. The severe demographic effects of the smallpox pandemic now seem widely accepted, although there is lively and ongoing debate about its long-term geopolitical and social consequences. Neither the demographic scope nor the long-range consequences of the Justinian Plague are in doubt. Securely identified by both clinical description and paleomolecular evidence, Yersinia pestis arrived in AD 541 and struck recurrently for over two centuries; like the Black Death in the fourteenth century, the first bubonic plague fundamentally reshaped the trajectory of European populations.

This resurgence of interest in ancient pandemics has curiously failed to touch a third event, known as the Plague of Cyprian. Named after the bishop of Carthage whose writings supply some of the most vivid testimony about the event, the Plague of Cyprian is attested in circum-Mediterranean populations from AD 249 until 270. It remains neglected, usually overshadowed by the Antonine Plague. A typical recent study considers the ‘great plagues’ of the ancient world to have included the Plague of Athens, the Antonine Plague, and the Justinianic Plague, with no mention of Cyprian’s pandemic. It scarcely rates any attention in the relevant volume of the second edition of the Cambridge Ancient History, where the plague is described in diminishing terms as one “which affected Africa in the mid-third century.” Potter’s important survey of the period does not so much as mention it, nor does Ando’s. For all intents and purposes, the Plague of Cyprian has been forgotten.

Click here to read this article from