Valentinus and the Roman Empire

Posted: February 13, 2019 in Holidays, Roman History
Tags: , , , , ,

As anyone with a significant other knows (maybe after several dozen hints dropped, or even outright reminders), tomorrow is St. Valentine’s Day, a day meant to celebrate romantic love all over the world. Yes, all that in spite of its Christian origins, just like Christmas itself and its various permutations in other cultures and traditions. Unlike Christmas, however, it’s not really a public holiday (at least not one where everyone has the day off!)

I’ve been fascinated by the day, not because of its connections with romance and love, although the chocolate thing wins me over. But then, maybe we should just have national “romance the chocolate days”. No, my interest comes more from its associations with ancient Roman history. Like Christmas and Saint Nicholas*, its origins are probably (and by “probably” I mean “very likely”, since we’re dealing with the Romans here) far more grimdark.

No one is absolutely sure of the exact origins, not least of reasons being a lot of Roman Christian martyrs went by the name Valentinus, all doing things that could roughly be associated with it. (Then again, Christianity is about love, though not romantic love** per se, so the confusion is understandable.) In one case, Emperor Claudius visited one of the Valentines in prison, conversing with him and attempted to get him to renounce his Christianity. Valentine in turn tried to convert Claudius, which earned him an execution, but not before he healed his jailer’s daughter of her blindness. Another variation features the same Valentine, only this time he converted the jailer’s household. There are others, plenty of others. The idea of cards come from these legends too, as he exchanged letters with a girl (in some cases it is again the daughter of his jailer) whom he taught to read, and signed them “Your Valentine” (or was it “Valentinus Tibi”?).

So what about that heart shape? How did it get so… weirdly simplified? The symbol itself is much older than its current connotations equivocating it with the anatomical one beating in most peoples’ chests. A seed pod or a leaf shaped was thought to inspire the symbol. In an illuminated manuscript, there’s a reference within a letter of a man giving his woman his “heart” although it looks less like a heart and more like a wedge of apple and some cite it as one of the first examples of the symbol meaning “love”.

Now, what REALLY symbolizes love for me… well, let’s just say…

You can keep your Valentine’s Day cards.

Gimme chocolate. Lots and lots of chocolate.


*One of my favorite stories about Saint Nicholas is how he resurrected the remains of missing children who were butchered and put into a barrel to cure and later be sold as “ham” by the greedy butcher during a famine. Nicholas suspected the butcher and proved him the murderer. He saves a lot of innocents from being executed or caught other officials in acts of corruption. That would make an interesting set of detective stories, if anyone is so inclined to write them– Saint Nick, P.I.

**Read Song of Solomon from the Bible and tell me that’s “just an allegory of Christ’s love for the church”. First, it’s Old Testament. Second, it reads a LOT like ancient erotic poetry from the region at that time (said another way, it would be like making a porno and said it was symbolic of chaste love). Third, considering its namesake, don’t forget the conditions that gave him his life. Christians weren’t ever meant to be prudes and married couples should fully celebrate intimacy and love.

  1. […] Valentinus and the Roman Empire […]

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