For the story of the Church (and of much else) in the middle decades of the third century the principal sources of information are the letters and tracts of Cyprian, bishop of Carthage during the decade 248-58, and the excerpts from the writings and letters of Dionysius of Alexandria mainly preserved in the Church History of Eusebius of Caesarea. Unfortunately sources for the secular history of the time are jejune. Cyprian and Dionysius both shed much light on the internal problems of the Church at a period when the crisis of a disintegrating Roman empire provoked passionate popular hostility to the Christians. The empire faced a series of civil wars between legitimate and less legitimate emperors. Goths poured across the lower Danube, Persians under King Shahpuhr I invaded Syria and captured the great Syrian city of Antioch-on-the-Orontes. In Asia Minor there had been earthquakes which people blamed on the Christian neglect of the traditional gods. In addition plague 1 spread from Egypt reducing the population of many cities and weakening the imperial armies. Writing against Celsus about 248 Origen noted rising attacks on Christians as responsible for these disasters (c. Cels. 3. 15). In 248 a celebration of Rome's millennium provided a context for a pagan revival. At Alexandria in 249 the mob subjected the Christians to a violent pogrom, a sign of what was to come (Eus. HE 6. 41). The dimensions of the Christian presence in third-century north Africa are manifest in the exceptionally large number of bishoprics attested in Cyprian's letters and councils, which record more than 130. Pagans could easily have felt swamped. The notorious Alexandrian mob could be roused to frenzy.
Cyprian had enjoyed a successful career at Carthage as a master of Latin rhetoric. In 246 he was converted from polytheism and idolatry to Christianity. An open letter to a friend and fellow convert Donatus provides some account of the motives underlying his conversion. He described himself as disgusted with the cruelties of contemporary society, the corruption of the judges easily bribed, the savagery of judicial tortures which left innocent people maimed if they did not die on the rack and did not confess