Saint Valentine’s Day-The story behind is hardly romantic

Who was Saint Valentine and why he was murdered-by Paul Ratner

Valentine’s Day is named after St. Valentine, who has become known as the patron saint of lovers. He was a rather mercurial figure about whom little is known.

Who was St. Valentine and why does he somehow bless the hearts of lovers in the middle of February? One can imagine some combination of a cherubic Cupid and a saintly old man with a nice smile fulfilling that role. The truth is, of course, more complicated. First of all, there was not just one Saint Valentine. And the one we most commonly associate with the holiday was a martyr who happened to be beheaded on February 14th in a story that is hardly romantic.

There were actually three men named Saint Valentine who all lived around the same time in the third century AD. Two of these men, known as Saint Valentine of Rome and Saint Valentine of Terni, lived in Italy. And the third was in a Roman province in North Africa.

The one we officially celebrate on Valentine’s Day is the Saint Valentine of Rome, but it’s likely the stories of several Valentines merged into one over time since “Valentius” (meaning “worthy,” “strong” and “powerful” in Latin) was a popular moniker at the time. Several martyrs ended up with that name.

The church itself has some doubts about what specifically happened in Saint Valentine’s life. In 496 AD, Pope Gelasius I described St. Valentine’s as a martyr like those “whose names are justly reverenced among men, but whose acts are known only to God.” He knew how little was really known about the saint while establishing February 14th as the day to celebrate St. Valentine’s life.

Trial of St. Valentine

Circa 260 AD, The trial of St Valentine, patron saint of lovers. Original Artist: By Bart Zeitblom (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

St. Valentine of Rome was supposedly a temple priest who was executed near Rome by the anti-Christian Emperor Claudius II for helping wed Roman soldiers who were not allowed to marry in the Christian faith.

St. Valentine of Interamna (modern Terni, Italy) was a bishop who was also martyred. It is additionally possible they there the same person – one biography says Bishop Valentine was born and lived in Interamna but when he was on a temporary stay in Rome, he was imprisoned, tortured, and beheaded there on February 14, 269 A.D. 

According to one storyline, the Roman Emperor went to such measures against Valentine because the saint tried to get him to convert to Christianity. This just enraged Claudius who tried to get Valentine to renounce his faith. The martyr refused, so the emperor ordered him beaten with clubs and stones and subsequently executed.

One or both of the St. Valentines are thought to be buried in a cemetery in the north of Rome. Little is known about the third Valentine in North Africa other than his supposed martyrdom.

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