We all do it, we all fall in love and it can happen any day of the year, usually when you least expect it. So why do we celebrate all lovers on this one day February 14th every year? Who was St. Valentine and why is he the patron saint of lovers?
St. Valentine is a celebrated saint of the Roman Catholic Church who was martyred around 270 AD in Rome. That’s about all the hard facts we have about him, but a whole narrative of myth and legend have grown over the years. St. Valentine could be an amalgam of various martyred Christians to have lost their heads at about that time but the perceived notion of who he was goes like this.
St. Valentine baptising St. Lucilla by Jacopo Bassano
Valentine was a Catholic priest who practiced in the city of Rome during the period of Christian persecution under the reign of Claudius II (213-270). When Claudius came to power in 268 AD the Roman Empire was under attack on many fronts from the Northern tribes, the biggest threat being that posed by the Goths. Many long, hard months away from family along with the threat of disease and battle meant that a career in the Roman army in those times was not such an attractive proposition. Claudius sought to remedy the situation by outlawing marriage, thereby ensuring the population of young Roman men had less reason to stay home with their loves.
Valentine ignored the edict and decided to marry couples in secret, a practice that soon saw him hauled before the Emperor and incarcerated. A beguiling and charming man was the priest and he captured the interest of the Emperor, but he made a tactical error in trying to convert Claudius to Christianity who had him beaten with clubs, stoned and beheaded outside the Flaminian Gate on February 14th 267.
It was only a generation later that Constantine The Great became the Roman Emperor to convert to Christianity and installed the religion as the official spiritual practice of Rome. The Empire made a great shift towards Christianity and slowly but surely replaced its pagan traditions with Christian practices. Festivals and traditions, some even predating the Roman period were phased out and Rome’s glorious heretic past was abandoned in favour of a new Christian set of values. One of these pagan festivals was the feast of Juno Februata in honour of the Roman Gods Faunus and Juno. Among the many festivities associated with this date was a ceremony when the names of young maidens where written out and drawn from jars by young men. The young woman the man drew became his partner for anything from one night to up to a year, many of the pairings made on this night went on to become full marriages.
Around the same time in Rome was celebrated the feast of Lupercalia, or the feast of the she-wolf that suckled the founders of Rome Romulus and Remus. The festivities centred around the sacrifice of two goats and a dog. The priest of the order of Lupercali would then dress themselves in the skins of the goats and run around the city with leather thongs lashing passers-by. Women held out their hands to receive a lashing to guarantee fertility and aid in childbirth.
An alter depicting the decapitation of St. Valentine
When the woman in my life says she wants to be surprised this Valentine’s Day, I’m pretty sure she doesn’t want a couple of goats and dog as presents or me to go running around the city with goatskin on my back. But it is interesting that many of the traditions we celebrate on St. Valentine’s and when I sent cards to the girls I fancied when I was a boy, these come directly from Roman times. Living in Italy you are constantly reminded about the great empire that once dominated Europe and North Africa. Not only in the architecture, the ancient ruins and the art, but in the living culture of the everyday. Food, art, theatre and language all bear the hallmarks of the Romans. Even the Roman Catholic Church owes its prolificacy to its adoption as the official religion of Rome.
The skull of St. Valentine is allegedly kept in the church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, Rome
It’s no surprise that the custom of celebrating the most romantic day of the year came from the most romantic city in the world, in the most romantic country, from the most romantic people. Even though te celebration has an together different form today, you can be sure that the romantic moments back then, from young fresh-faced lovers to mature life-weary spouses, were not that different to what we experience today. What we call St. Valentine’s Day has existed in some form or another for millennia and long may it continue.
By Hugo Mc Cafferty