In the third century AD, Roman Emperor Claudius II 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.
To Emperor Claudius, such reluctance could only mean that Roman men were excessively devoted to their wives and families. The solution was obvious – ban all engagements and marriages.
Valentinus was a Roman priest at this time, who 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.
Claudius came to like his prisoner, for whom things could have gone much better, but for one critical mistake. He tried to convert the pagan Emperor to Christianity.
Valentinus was condemned to be beaten to death with clubs and beheaded, the sentence carried out on February 14 in the year AD269.
Legend has it that Valentinus befriended his jailers’ blind daughter, at one point miraculously restoring the 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 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 the mating habits, of birds: “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. Pope Gelasius decreed February 14th to be a celebration in honor of 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 of Chaeronea (46-c.120) 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.”
It wasn’t the every-day guys of Rome who would run about oiled and naked, either. This was the upper crust of Roman society. Plutarch writes in chapter 61 of his Life of Julius Caesar, that Consul Mark Antony offered Caesar the diadem with the wreath of laurel during the festival of Lupercalia, and Antony was no spectator. He was taking part in the “sacred running”. Think about That, the next time your local drama club puts on a performance of Julius Caesar.
There are, in fact, about a dozen Saint Valentines, the most recently beatified being Saint.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 Saint 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. Perhaps you’d prefer the only female St. Valentine (Valentina), a virgin martyred in Palestine on July 25, in the year AD308.
The Eastern Orthodox Church celebrates Saint Valentine twice, first on July 6 as an elder of the church, and again as a martyr on the 30th. That would suit the greeting card companies just fine, but don’t tell them. Once a year is enough for some of us to remember.