This Week in History: 14 February 278 AD The beheading of Saint Valentine

Valentine’s Day is renowned for being a celebration of romantic love, but its history is  strangely rooted in violent dictatorship. This day commemorates  St Valentine, a high priest in Rome who was executed on February 14, 278 AD, during the reign of Emperor Claudius II: Claudius the Cruel.

Claudius often faced a military deficit due to his brutal and unpopular wars, as Roman men were strongly attached to their families and hesitant to join the army. To solve the problem, the Emperor announced a decree outlawing marriages for young men. Valentine – later named a Saint for his courageous actions – found this edict to be unjust and continued to officiate marriages to secret lovers.

Claudius eventually discovered these acts of defiance and condemned St Valentine to death. Roman authorities brought him before the Roman Prefect who ordered him to be clubbed to death and beheaded – a strange contrast to the representation of Valentine’s Day today as a festival of romance.

However, legend states that St Valentine befriended his jailer’s daughter while he was imprisoned and wrote a farewell letter to her signed “From Your Valentine” before his death – marking the first Valentine.

Controversy remains as to whether this is an authentic narrative of St Valentine. Three other martyrs under the same name are mentioned in the Catholic Encyclopedia under 14 February, with a priest in Rome, a bishop from Italy and a third from Africa.

Additionally, there have been debates about whether the festival is connected to the Feast of Lupercalia, a pagan festival of love where women would enter their names in a box to be drawn at random  by men in attendance. The Feast was later banned by Pope Gelasius who proclaimed this day to be a commemoration of St Valentine’s bravery.

Today, Valentine’s Day is a date for exchanging love messages, poems and simple gifts to lovers without the scrutiny of tyrannical emperors such as Claudius the Cruel.

Image: c_pichler via Flickr

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