So you think you’re losing your head over your sweetheart? Well, I’ll see your smarmy Vermont Teddy Bear and raise you a beheading. SAY WHAT?? Oh, Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone (a little early).
Since the Great Holiday of Romance is nearly upon us, I found myself curious ~ proud History Dork that I am ~ about the historical truth behind St. Valentine’s Day and how all this got chocolatey-rosey goodness got started. Who was this Valentine fellow, when did he live, and how did he come to be the patron saint of this day of love? And did he really wear a diaper and go around shooting people with a bow and arrow?
Needing to know, naturally, I put it into The Google and could barely wait to come tumbling headlong into the Ballroom to tell you all what I’ve unearthed.
<Squawk! Beheadings Aren’t Romantic! Squawk!>
No, indeed, Albert, I quite agree. A stupid $100 Teddy Bear (and I’ve sworn to garotte my husband if he ever gets me one of these bits of clutter–CHOCOLATE, MAN, IF YOU KNOW WHAT’S GOOD FOR YOU)…as I was saying…the teddy bear is a far cry from the sentiments that motivated our Saint Valentine, who laid down his life for what he believed in.
Lady B: Ms. Foley, whatever are you on about today? Have you had too much of that horrid Colonial coffee you are always swigging?
Afraid so, dear hostess. I’m positively bouncing off the walls with it. But I can’t help it! I am eager to share with my fellow history lovers a glimpse into the world of Ancient Rome in the 3rd Century A.D. …
Lady B: Ahh, Italy! Now that Boney is quite thrashed, I plead every day with my Lord B. to convey me thither. How I long to feel the Tuscan sun warm my cheeks…
Egads, Lady B., you are waxing poetical.
Lady B: Isn’t that what Italy’s all about? Byron and Shelley are there…
Yes, in our Regency day, certes, but in the 3rd century, you had to be careful to keep your head about you.
Lady B: You’re going to fill my Ballroom with tingling Gothic horror, I presume? Go on then, if you must…
It was a dark and stormy night — no wait, scratch that.
It was a secretive yet joyous occasion as the Roman priest, Valentinus, stood before a small, hidden gathering of believers to marry a young couple in the early Christian church. WHEN SUDDENLY – Roman soldiers burst in and began wreaking havoc on them. The wedding guests scattered; the groom was injured in the fracas, the bride barely escaped ravishment, but the priest, ah, the poor, brave priest, Valentinus, was arrested. The year was 269 AD, and to be a Christian was a capital offence. (“DRAMATIZATION”)
Valentinus was a priest of the early Church who was helping Christians survive during the persecution under the Roman Emperor Claudius II.
Claudius, the villain in our story, was born 213 A.D. His parentage is not recorded. He served all his life in the Roman armies, fighting against the Goths, working his way up to become the commander of an elite cavalry force. Thanks to his troops’ devotion, he came to power during the chaotic rule of Gallienus. He was said to be one tough mo-fo, knocking the teeth out of a horse with one punch. (I suppose it tried to bite him?) It seemed he ruled his troops with an iron fist, and he brought this same sensibility to his rule when he became Emperor at age 55. His street name was Claudius the Goth.
His rule only lasted two years. He died of smallpox while arranging a campaign against the Vandals, and his younger brother, Quintillus, briefly seized power before also being replaced by the Aurelian, “Restorer of the World.” Claudius II was a middle-of-the-road persecutor of Christians, according to Church history. Aurelian, by contrast, led one of the ten great persecutions of the early Church.
Gallenius, his predecessor, by contrast, had had a tolerant view of the Christians, but the Roman Senate had grumbled that Gallenius had not been devout enough to the Roman gods. Thus, to gain approval, Claudius wanted to show himself as more attentive to the old ways, and always consulted the Sybilline Books before a battle. [Sybil as in the Delphic Oracle, those prophetesses of Apollo, also devoted to the 'great mother,' Cybele, and Ceres, goddess of the harvest.]
When Christians refused to give honor to Apollo & company, it seemed to the leaders that they were undermining social unity (Roman policy was generally tolerant/inclusive of the gods of the many, many cultures they conquered–to be otherwise would have been too difficult). They simply added more gods into their total population of deities as they conquered new lands, but the Christians would not go along with this.
True, the Jews didn’t believe in multiple gods, either, but they didn’t go around trying to spread their faith. The Christians did, and so the Roman authorities saw them as a bad influence. Even the ordinary folk were frightened that these nonbelievers insulted the gods like Apollo, Mars and Jupiter, and would bring down punishment on everybody if they were not rebuked. So, the Christians had to be made an example of.
Lions, tigers and bears, oh my–though the punishment they received under Claudius the Goth wasn’t anywhere near the viciousness of the grand-baddy of them all, Nero. To get the flavor of what had already been done to Christians under Nero, listen to the Roman historian Tacitus:
“Besides being put to death they [the Christians] were made to serve as objects of amusement; they were clad in the hides of beast and torn to death by dogs; others were crucified, others set on fire to serve to illuminate the night when daylight failed. Nero had thrown open his grounds for the display, and was putting on a show in the circus, where he mingled with the people in the dress of a charioteer or drove about in his chariot. All this gave rise to a feeling of pity, even toward men whose guilt merited the most exemplary punishment; for it was felt that they were being destroyed not for the public good but to satisfy the cruelty of an individual.” (Nero, pictured left)
Still, while Claudius II was a sweetheart compared to Nero, it was still a capital crime to be a Christian. The government could confiscate your property and threw your in jail, and then things got nastier from there if your still refused to give honor to their gods.
Into this alarming situation comes Valentinus, a priest who lives in Rome and finds a new round of persecution percolating when Claudius II seizes power. Legend has it he was caught marrying Christian couples, but one way or another, he was arrested in 269 A.D. and eventually brought before Claudius.
Claudius supposedly took a liking to him, but Valentinus went too far and tried to convert him. Claudius sentenced him to death. While in jail, according to legend, Valentinus healed the eyes of his jailer’s blind daughter. On the night before his execution, he wrote her a note along with this gift of healing, signed, “From your Valentine.”
Then the day came and it was time for his sentence to be carried out. But when beating with clubs was not enough to kill him, he was beheaded near the Flaminian Gate and is buried on the Via Flaminia, north of Rome.
Lady B: What a tragical history…!
The lives of saints are steeped in legend and obscured by the centuries, but how their stories evolve is interesting, in itself. For example, some say the great English poet Geoffrey Chaucer and his circle (mid 1300′s) had a hand in crafting the story of Saint Valentine as it has come down to us today.
How ever much of all this you do or don’t believe, archaeologists found a Roman catacomb and an ancient church dedicated to Saint Valentine, and in 496 AD Pope Gelasius marked February 14th as a celebration in honor of his martyrdom.
Today, Saint Valentine is the Patron Saint of engaged couples, happy marriages, love, lovers, and young people. He is represented in pictures with birds and roses. (Thanks to Wikipedia, www.Catholic.org, which has a full battery of saint bios, and www.EarlyChurch.org.uk for info in this article.)
So the next time you hear some cynic scoffing about how Valentine’s Day is a made-up holiday invented by the Hallmark Greeting Industrial Complex, remind them that LOVE is and always has been worth celebrating, whether it’s the One True Love of some ordinary person’s lifetime or the love that inspires a saint to lay down his life. Indeed, if LOVE is not worth celebrating with a special day all it’s own, I don’t know what is.
So, what are you giving the one you love for Valentine’s Day this year? Even if it’s not a spouse/lover, it’s a chance to let our dearest friends/family know we love them. Have you got anything special planned? If you do, please share. I have no idea what to get my husband…I don’t want to have to resort to a Teddy Bear… (aw, lol, they’re not that bad, I guess, but I can’t see paying $100 for the dang thing…)