In 269, Roman Emperor Claudius II Gothicus was having trouble recruiting for his legions. To many he was “Claudius the Cruel” which may have had something to do with his problem, but that’s not how he saw it.
That Roman men were refusing to join his legions could only mean that they were too devoted to their wives and families, Claudius’ solution was to ban engagements and marriages.
Valentinus was a Roman priest at this time. He wanted no part of such a silly decree. Valentinus continued to carry out marriages in secret until it was discovered, when he was dragged before the Prefect to answer for his crimes.
This Emperor of barbarian birth came to like his prisoner, for whom things could have gone much better, but for one critical mistake. Valentinus tried to convert the pagan Emperor to Christianity.
He was condemned to be beaten to death with clubs and beheaded, the sentence carried out on February 14, 269.
Legend has it that Valentinus befriended his jailers’ daughter, at one point miraculously restoring the blind girl’s sight. He is said to have penned a farewell note to her shortly before his execution, signing it “From Your Valentine.”
2,000-year-old history is necessarily clouded by legend, and there are different versions of this tale. It’s possible that the Valentinus story never happened at all. Little or no evidence exists suggesting romantic celebrations on February 14, until Geoffrey Chaucer’s 1375 “Parliament of Foules,” in which the poet describes February 14 as a day when birds come together to find a mate: “For this was sent on Seynt Valentyne’s day, Whan every foul cometh ther to choose his mate”.
Yet, there is concrete archaeological proof that Valentinus lived, and Pope Gelasius decreed February 14th to be a celebration to honor his martyrdom, in 496.
The date is also significant of the pagan festival of Lupercalia, carried out from February 13-15 in honor of the goddess Februata Juno. Greek historian Plutarch described the occasion as follows: “Lupercalia, [when] many of the noble youths and of the magistrates run up and down through the city naked, for sport and laughter striking those they meet with shaggy thongs. And many women of rank also purposely get in their way, and like children at school present their hands to be struck, believing that the pregnant will thus be helped in delivery, and the barren to pregnancy.”
There are, in fact, about a dozen St. Valentines, the most recently beatified being St. Valentine Berrio-Ochoa, a Dominican friar who served as bishop of Vietnam until his beheading in 1861. There was even a Pope Valentine, who served about 40 days, sometime around 827AD.
So, take your pick. With all those St. Valentines, you can celebrate St. Valentine of Viterbo on November 3, or maybe you’d like to get a head start with St. Valentine of Raetia on January 7. Maybe you’d prefer the only female St. Valentine (Valentina), a virgin martyred in Palestine on July 25, A.D. 308.
The Eastern Orthodox Church celebrates St. Valentine twice, first as a church elder on July 6, and again as a martyr on the 30th. That would suit the greeting card companies, but don’t tell them. Once a year is more than enough for some of us to remember.