Who Was Saint Valentine? The Truth Behind The Day Of A Roman Martyr
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Who Was Saint Valentine? The Truth Behind The Day Of A Roman Martyr

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By: Oliver G. Alvar

January 2, 2019

What's on Who Was Saint Valentine? The Truth Behind The Day Of A Roman Martyr
Avatar of Oliver G. Alvar

By: Oliver G. Alvar

January 2, 2019

There’s some speculation, many transmutations, and a whole lot of confusion behind this prominent martyr. Here’s how a beheaded priest ended up giving us the most romantic day of the year.

You know, we all often observe several festivities, traditions, and celebrations only by the sheer impetus of society. Up until recently, I had no idea where Thanksgiving actually came from, for instance. And I bet you, too, have no clue why we celebrate most of the things we celebrate: those charming holidays such as Christmas or Halloween have an ancient cultural background whose meaning goes far beyond what we imagine. And of course, Valentine’s Day is no exception. We all know February 14th is all about love and friendship, but do you know where this tradition truly comes from—its history and its deepest background? Probably not… until now. 

Saint Valentine Day Martyr True Story

Three Valentines

Who doesn’t love a good old trinity story? Turns out, there was not one Saint Valentine—but three. At least. Yeah, it’s complicated. There is no straightforward answer as to which Valentine we supposedly celebrate on February 14th—it’s actually likely we celebrate a character that is ultimately a combination of several different people. 

What little we know of Saint Valentine of Rome, Saint Valentine of Terni, and Saint Valentine of North Africa doesn’t go much beyond the fact that they died for their religious ideals. St. Valentine of Rome is most probably the correct candidate—at least according to the Church’s incomplete records. Church scholars don’t even know much of what he actually did, and even in 476 AD, Pope Gelasius I declared that Saint Valentine was one of those great martyrs “whose names are justly reverenced among men, but whose deeds are known only to God.” Yep, the very Church that proclaimed the man a saint is confused as to why.

Saint Valentine Day Martyr True StorySt. Valentine Kneeling in Supplication, David Teniers III, 1600s

The vague stories surrounding this mysterious character generally portray a stubborn temple priest of the 3rd century who would help Roman couples get married under the Christian faith, aided persecuted Christians, and generally went around proselytizing. He was arrested and taken to the Emperor himself, Claudius II. The Emperor took a liking to the prisoner, but got angry when Valentine tried to convert him, too, to the Christian faith. When Claudius ordered Valentine to renounce Jesus and his Christian god instead, Valentine refused. He was then condemned, beaten with clubs and stones, and eventually beheaded on February 14th. Other accounts add or retract some additional details, specifically concerning alleged miracles related to restoring a young, blind girl her sight. 

Valentine of Tarni’s story is even less clear. He was born and lived in what was then Interamna (today’s Tarni), and during a brief visit to Rome he was arrested, tortured, and martyred on February 14th, 269. It’s very likely that he and the one referred to as Valentine of Rome are in fact the same person, both supposedly interred at the Via Flaminia. Regarding the third Valentine, apart from the fact that he was a martyr executed on the same day (alongside a number of companions), pretty much nothing is known. So, perhaps we can rule him out. 

Saint Valentine Day Martyr True Story14th-century illustration of Saint Valentine of Terni supervising the construction of his basilica at Terni.

Valentine’s Day

If so little is known about this martyr, why would he become such a prominent figure whose name we celebrate to this day? The short answer—politics. Probably. You see, back then there was a popular Roman feast called Lupercalia. Simply put, Lupercalia was a fertility festival celebrated on February 14th in honor of the God Lupercus, the protector of sheep, and Lupa, the she-wolf who fed Romulus and Remus (the mythological founders of the city of Rome). 

When the Catholic Church became influential enough, it started to suppress the pagan connotations of everyday festivities. The Church wasn’t so powerful that it could simply cancel this pagan celebration—so it used a different strategy. Like with Christmas and Halloween, the Church basically took a pagan holiday and gave it a Christian-friendly twist. So, Lupercalia’s name was replaced with “St. Valentine’s day” (much like Saturnalia was replaced with Christmas), but the people still had their festivity. This sort of move allowed the Church to convert the masses far more smoothly. 

Saint Valentine Day Martyr True Story3D facial reconstruction of Saint Valentine

Of course, some scholars reject this explanation. In fact, the more familiar romantic features of St. Valentine’s day didn’t really arise until the Middle Ages, when famed poet Geoffrey Chaucer, author of The Book of the Duchess, absorbed to it elements of courtly love. Shakespeare also played a part in popularizing Valentine’s day as a romantic event (ever read Midsummer Night’s Dream?) The topic of romance, friendship, and depth of emotion in general took an even stronger hold during the centuries that followed, especially in the 18th and 19th centuries—the advent of Romanticism signaled the time’s quest for love, after all. 

So, yeah. It’s an ancient, unclear story whichever way you look at it. Still, this is, in a very broad sense, how we came to celebrate this very special day. And although the origins of St. Valentine’s day are not themselves exactly romantic or even friendly—a decapitated man would certainly not be a good symbol for either—, we can still be glad that, at least, we got a day to celebrate these feelings out of the whole thing.  

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