The Forgotten Pandemic.

Bishop Cyprian’s Epidemic.

Agustín Muñoz-Sanz
6 min readJul 20, 2020

“Afterwards, there broke out a dreadful plague, and excessive destruction of a hateful disease invaded every house in the succession of the trembling populace, carrying off day by day with abrupt attack numberless people, every one from his own house.”

‘The Life and Passion of Cyprian, 9’. Pontius the Deacon.

Saint Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage (200258 A.D.). Photo: Wikipedia

Who was Cyprian?

Tascius Caecilius Cyprianus was Bishop of Carthage (249―258 A.D.). And a Catholic Church saint and martyr. He occupies a place in the book of history because of his theological merits. And by a notable epidemic.

Cyprian was born around the year 200 A.D. in North Africa (in Carthage). A member of a distinguished pagan family, shortly after his baptism, he became a deacon, priest, and finally, bishop of Carthage (in 248―249 A.D.). He got it despite the radical opposition of the prelates.

In 250 A.D., Emperor Decius declared the suppression of Christianity. Immediately he began the persecution of Christians (known as Decian persecution). Cyprian had to flee. His enemies accused him of cowardice.

At the end of the year 256 A. D., Emperor Valerian made another religious persecution. On August 257, A.D., Cyprian refused to make sacrifices to the pagan deities. He reaffirmed his faith in Christianism.

One year later, the proconsul Galerius Maximianus arrested him. The bishop was o prison and receipt a sentence to die: Romans beheaded him. He became the first bishop―martyr of Africa.

The forgotten pandemic.

Cyprian’s plague is more literary than an epidemiological denomination. The name is because he made a detailed description of the disease. He tells about the epidemic in his book De mortalitate (On mortality), where he writes (in Latin, of course):

“That plague and disease, which seems horrible and bestial [cruel] (…). And examines the minds of the human race, to find out if the healthy will serve the sick; if relatives will dutifully love their family members; if masters will have mercy on their languishing slaves; if doctors will not desert their pleading patients.”

The paragraph is John Byron Kuhner’s Latin translation. The disease was a challenge and a kind of compromise to all humanity.

Kyle Harper, the author of The Fate of Rome, calls the Cyprian epidemic the forgotten pandemic. With undoubted accuracy.

The 3rd Century outbreak appeared in Ethiopia. It seems that it spread through other areas in less than two years. It arrived at Alexandria, and then it affected the whole Roman empire. It was the historical city founded by Alexander the Great on the West of the Nile delta.

The best etiological candidate is the Ebola virus. Or some similar hemorrhagic virus. The influenza pandemic virus seems less probable.

The mortality rate of the epidemic was tremendous. Around 62% of the population of Alexandria died. The infection respected no one. Children, young adults, and older persons got sick and died, both women and men.

The epidemic lasted several years because several consecutive outbreaks took place. Finally, the decadent Roman Empire suffered one more terrifying blow.

The mortality rate of the epidemic was tremendous. Around 62% of the population of Alexandria died.

What did generate this disaster?

The climate? During the third century, there was a turning point of slow and unstoppable decline of the empire. The so-named Climate Optimum Period or Roman Optimum Climate disappeared.

Climate gave way to the so-called Late Roman Transition Period. It was an epoch very tumultuous. And chaotic. It spanned from the 3rd to 6th century A.D. The Imperial decadence.

The heat and light output of the sun decreased a lot. A similar event happened two centuries before, in 180 A.D., when the Antoninus were ruling. Sunshine fell throughout the 240 A.D decade. After, the climate phenomenon caused global cooling.

It followed an exceptional drought in the West of the Roman Empire, i.e., in the lands of Palestine, Galilee, and Judea. But also in the southern frontier (the north of Africa). The immediate result of the drying up was food shortages and a dire famine.

The climate phenomenon caused global cooling.

The climate as a backdrop.

What produced or at least contributed to this alteration in climate behavior? Why ended an excellent and stable period and began a more turbulent era? The culprit was the El Niño/Southern Oscillation in the Pacific Ocean (EN/ENSO) phenomenon. This issue is in Cesar Caviedes’ book El Niño in History: Storming Through the Ages, 2011. An excellent approach.

Pacific Ocean’s EN/ENSO occurrence and distant climatic events have a close relationship. They happen in the other geographical face of the planet.

A close relationship exist between Pacific Ocean’s EN/ENSO and distant climatic events.

El Niño is a well-known phenomenon to pre-Columbian Peruvian fisher since the 15th century. As a rule, has a periodicity of about every three to seven years. It often emerges when there is a convergence of various events. These events are the annual summer-winter cycle, biannual Oscillation Quasi Biannual, El Niño’s regularity (3.1–7.8 years), and recurrences of sunspots. Last occurs every 11.8 years.

Le Pêcheur/The Fisherman (Charles Napier Hemy, 1888). Photo: Wikipedia.

The phenomenon does not seem to depend on volcanic activity or from underwater lava. It appears that the laws of catastrophes and chaos rule those events. It is the conjunction of various environmental factors: oceanic, atmospheric, and geographic.

During the Roman Optimum Climate, El Niño remained silent. It only occurred a notable episode every twenty years. EN/ENSO episodes occurred with more frequency during the Late Roman Transition. At the time of Bishop Cyprian. Every three years!

The reduction of climate variability in the Pacific Ocean changed the wind’s behavior. Monsoon rains from the Indian Ocean did not fall. The mythical Nile River dried up. It was a crucial fact. White Nile and the Blue Nile fed the flow of the river. In turn, it provides the flow of the Indo―Asian Monsoon. The lack of rain causes a tremendous and sterilizing drought. And later, the flood of famine came.

After the lack of rain, it followed a tremendous and sterilizing drought. And later the flood of famine came.

The Nile river (left). Photo: NASA/Mark Garcia.

The planetary ecosystem does not stop to warn us.

Sickness and death walk together. The pandemics’ protagonists are microbes and humans. Viruses, bacteria, vector insects, rodents (or bats), and human―beings. And also climate change, by chance, by the unpredictable chaos law.

The most renowned is the Athens epidemic. Also known as Pericles’ plague and described by Thucydides (V century B.D). It is the most celebrated. The Peloponnesian War (2, 48–51) described it. But twenty more historical pandemics also caused terror to humanity. All provoked very high mortality.

Remember three examples of terrible pandemics. Galen’s plague in the 2nd century was a kind of hemorrhagic smallpox. The epidemic from Boccaccio’s Decameron (XIV century) was a Yersinia pestis infection. And the terrific 1918―20 Flu Pandemic (The Mother of All Pandemics). The three sums over 100 million dead.

The most renowned is the Athens epidemic. Also known as Pericles’ plague described by Thucydides (V century B.D). But twenty more historical pandemics caused terror to humanity too. All caused very high mortality.

Bishop Cyprian’s epidemic is not one of the most famous in history. Nor one of the most harmful, although it was notable, as Harper remembers us. The genesis of this epidemic converged various factors. Its importance is today, more than ever, extraordinary. Because what happened then can happen again.

Suppose ―it is only a supposition― that it is happening already. Have you heard some news about a new pandemic coronavirus? And about the G4 avian-swine flu? These are only two examples — a never-ending list. And with the climate as a backdrop.



Agustín Muñoz-Sanz

Medical Doctor (Infectious Diseases specialist/Professor of Medicine) and writer (narrative, theater).