Hearts… flowers… Cupid… Valentine’s Day is so much a part of our culture little thought is given to from whence it actually came. We take for granted that it’s to do with love, and that St Valentine would have been into chocolate if he’d known about it. But as is often the case with very old traditions, little is quite as it seems.
What have the Romans ever done for us?
For starters, it’s unclear which St Valentine actually triggered the celebration of the day in the first place. There have been a few, they’ve all be martyrs, and at least three of them are directly linked to the date of February 14th.
Let’s have a look at our first contender; a holy priest in Rome who was alive during the time of Emperor Claudius II. This takes us back to roughly 270AD. Claudius the Cruel, as he was known to his close friends, had developed a bit of a penchant for bloody campaigns. Now to do this, any emperor worth their weight needed to maintain and replenish a tough army. The problem for Claudius, though, was that volunteer numbers were dwindling as a result of the obvious attrition rate in the ranks. However, not being one to reflect upon the impact of his plans, he concluded that this was simply because married Roman men were so attached to their wives and families that they were unwilling to leave them behind.
To solve this this touching conundrum, he decided the pragmatic solution was to ban marriages and engagements in Rome. Valentinus, a priest with a good understanding of the psychology of man, felt this to be extremely unfair and thus defied the decree and continued to perform marriages in secret. When Claudius found out, he ordered that Valentinus be beaten with clubs and then enjoy his head being removed from his body. This was duly done… on 14th February… Though not before he’d allegedly left a farewell note to the daughter of his jailer, whom he had befriended, signing it off, “From your Valentine…”. And thus, it’s possible that the rest is history.
However, there was also a Bishop Valentinus in Interamna and a Valentinus who operated in the Roman province of Africa. These two are referred to in the Acta Sanctorum (martyrologies, per se, of the lives of saints compiled from the 17th century) and both are specifically linked to the date 14th February.
Now, the latter literally just gets a mention. But the former, as was the case for many Christians, we discover had found himself in protective custody. His custodian, Asterius, listened to Valentinus wax lyrical about how Christ led pagans out of the darkness into the light and was intrigued. Clearly being an open minded fellow, Asterius challenged Valentinus to cure his daughter’s blindness such that if his hopes were achieved he would convert. Lo and behold, Valentinus pulled it off with the laying on of hands and Asterius stuck to his word. Unfortunately, the emperor got to hear of the story and promptly had everyone executed; though Valentinus was the only one to lose his head over it. His headless corpse was ‘salvaged’ by a fervent believer and buried on the Via Flaminia; where a chapel was later erected over his remains.
Feast of Lupercalia
As is often the case, though, it’s possible that what was originally a pagan concept mutated into something with a Catholic base over time. The Feast of Lupercalia was a pagan festival that celebrated love (aka. fertility). Girls, having been whipped with bloodied strips of animals’ hides to make them more fertile, then had their names placed in an urn to be drawn by hopeful sweethearts. We’ll leave you to judge the merits of this festival, but it seems that Pope Gelasius didn’t agree with it in 496AD and declared St Valentine’s Day to be celebrated instead on 14th February.
Our overall thoughts…
As it stands, it does appear most likely that the warmth and love surrounding Valentine’s Day is either linked to a precursor of the ‘car keys in a bowl’ game, or a celebration of the decapitation of a man. Neither really fill us with a warm feeling to be celebrated with red roses and candlelit dinners. But if we had to make a choice, we’d plump for number one, Valentinus of Rome, for we feel that the shift from beheading to betrothing can’t be a bad thing.