St. Valentine's Day: 5th Century, Rome
Catholic Churchs attempt to paper over a popular pagan fertility rite with the
clubbing death and decapitation of one of its own martyrs is the origin of this
As early as the fourth century B.C., the Romans engaged in an annual young mans
rite of passage to the god Lupercus. The names of teenage women were placed in a box and
drawn at random by adolescent men; thus, a man was assigned a woman companion, for their
mutual entertainment and pleasure (often sexual), for the duration of a year, after which
another lottery was staged. Determined to put an end to this eight-hundred-year-old
practice, the early church fathers sought a "lovers " saint to replace the
deity Lupercus. They found a likely candidate in Valentine, a bishop who had been martyred
some two hundred years earlier.
In Rome in A.D. 270, Valentine had enraged the mad emperor Claudius, who had issued an
edict forbidding marriage. Claudius felt that men made poor soldiers, because they were
loath to leave their families for battle. The empire needed soldiers, so Claudius, never
one to fear unpopularity, abolished marriage.
Valentine, bishop of Interamna, invited young lovers to come to him in secret, where he
joined them in the sacrament of matrimony. Claudius learned of this "friend of
lovers," and had the bishop brought to the palace. The emperor, impressed with the
young priests dignity and conviction, attempted to convert him to the Roman gods, to
save him from otherwise certain execution. Valentine refused to renounce Christianity and
imprudently attempted to convert the emperor. On February 24, 270, Valentine was clubbed,
stoned, then beheaded.
History also claims that while Valentine was in prison awaiting execution, he fell in
love with the blind daughter of the jailer, Asterius. Through his unswerving faith, he
miraculously restored her sight. He signed a farewell message to her "From Your
Valentine," a phrase that would live long after its author died.
From the Churchs standpoint, Valentine seemed to be the ideal candidate to usurp
the popularity of Lupercus. So in A.D. 496, a stern Pope Gelasius outlawed the
mid-February Lupercian festival. But he was clever enough to retain the lottery, aware of
Romans love for games of chance. Now into the box that had once held the names of
available and willing single women were placed the names of saints. Both men and women
extracted slips of paper, and in the ensuing year they were expected to emulate the life
of the saint whose name they had drawn. Admittedly, it was a different game, with
different incentives; to expect a woman and draw a saint must have disappointed many a
Roman male. The spiritual overseer of the entire affair was its patron saint, Valentine.
With reluctance, and the passage of time, more and more Romans relinquished their pagan
festival and replaced it with the Churchs holy day.