When Rome was first founded it was surrounded by a wilderness. Great packs of wolves roamed over the countryside. Among their many gods the Romans had one named Lupercus who watched over the shepherds and their flocks. In his honour they held a great feast in February of each year and called it the Lupercalia. The Lupercalia festival was an echo of the days when Rome consisted of a group of shepherd folk that lived on a hill now known as Palantine. On the calendar used back in those days, February came later than it does today, so Lupercalia was a spring festival.
Some believe the festival honored Faunus, who like the Greek Pan, was a god of herds and crops, But the origin of Lupercalia is so ancient that even scholars of the last century before Christ were never sure.
There is no question about its importance. Records show, for instance, that Mark Antony, an important Roman, was master of the Luperci College of Priests. He chose the Lupercalia festival of the year 44BC as the proper time for offering the crown to Julius Caesar.
Each year, on February 15, the Luperci priests gathered on the Palantine at the cave of Lupercal. Here, according to legend, Romulus and Remus, founders of Rome, had been nursed by a mother wolf. In Latin, the word lupus is the word for wolf.
Some of the rituals involved youths of noble birth running through the streets with goatskin thongs. Young women would crowd the street in the hope of being lashed with the sacred thongs as it was believed to make them better able to bear children. The goatskin thongs were known as the februa and the lashing the februatio, both coming from a Latin word meaning to purify. The name of the month February comes from this meaning.
Long after Rome became a walled city and the seat of a powerful empire, the Lupercalia lived on. When Roman armies invaded France and Britain, they took the Lupercalia customs there. One of these is believed to be a lottery where the names of Roman maidens were placed in a box and drawn out by the young men. Each man accepted the girl whose name he drew as his love - for a year or longer.
Also known as Valentine of Terni, Valentine of Rome
Confusion surrounds exactly who St Valentine was. According to the Catholic Encyclopaedia, at least three Saint Valentines are mentioned in the early martyrologies under the date of 14 February. One is described as a priest at Rome, another as a Bishop of Interamna (now Terni in Italy) and the other lived and died in Africa.
The Bishop of Interamna is most widely accepted as the basis of the modern saint. He was an early Christian martyr who lived in northern Italy in the third century and was put to death on 14 February around 270AD on the orders of emperor Claudius the Second for flouting the ban on Christianity.
However, though Valentine of Terni and Valentine of Rome have separate entries in martyrologies and biographies, most scholars believe they are the same person.
THE STORY OF THE PRIEST CALLED VALENTINE
In the city of Rome in the years around 270AD there lived an Emperor named Claudius. He is known in history
as Claudius the Cruel.
Near his palace was a beautiful temple where the priest Valentine served. The Romans loved him dearly and assembled in the temple to hear his words. Before the fire that always burned on the altar they knelt to ask his blessing. Rich and poor, wise and ignorant, old and young, noble and common people they all flocked to Valentine.
Wars broke out in the Roman Empire. Claudius summoned the citizens forth to battle and year after year the fighting continued. Many of the Romans were unwilling to go. The married men did not want to leave their families. The younger men did not wish to leave their sweethearts. The Emperor was angry when soldiers were too few. He ordered that no marriages should be celebrated and that all engagements must be broken off immediately.
Now the good priest Valentine heard of the Emperor's command and was very sad. When a young couple came to the temple, he secretly united them in marriage in front of the sacred altar. Another pair sought his aid and in secret he wedded them. Others came and quietly were married. Valentine was the friend of lovers in every district of Rome.
But, such secrets could not be kept for long in Rome. At last word of Valentine's acts reached the palace and Claudius the Cruel was angry, exceedingly angry. He summoned his soldiers. "Go! Take that priest in the temple! Cast him into a dungeon! No man in Rome, priest or not, shall disobey my commands!"
Valentine was dragged from the temple, away from the altar where a young maiden and a Roman youth stood, ready to be married, and the soldiers took him off to prison.
Many asked Claudius to release Valentine but Claudius refused to do so, and in a dungeon Valentine languished and died. His devoted friends buried him in the church of St. Praxedes. When you go to Rome you can see the very place.
It was the year 270AD, on the 14th of February.
VALENTINE THE BISHOP
Another story says that Valentine was one of the early Christians in those far-away days when that meant danger and death. For helping some Christian martyrs he was seized, dragged before the Prefect of Rome and cast into jail. There he cured the keeper's daughter of blindness. When the cruel emperor learned of this miracle he gave orders that Valentine should be beheaded. The morning of the execution, he is said to have sent the keeper's daughter a farewell message signed, "From your Valentine."
After Christianity was firmly established the priests wanted the people to forget the old heathen gods. But they did not wish to do away with all their feasts and sports. So they kept the Lupercalia and called it Valentine's Day.
BE MY VALENTINE!
During the medieval days of chivalry, the names of English maidens and bachelors were put into the box and drawn out in pairs. Each couple exchanged gifts. The girl became the man's valentine for that year. On his sleeve he wore her name and it was his bounded duty to attend and protect her.
This old, old custom of drawing names on the fourteenth of February was considered a good omen for love. It often foretold a wedding. For since the beginning of things this has been lovers' day, a time for loving, for giving and receiving love tokens.
History tells us the first modern valentines date from the early years of the fifteenth century. The young French Duke of Orleans, captured at the battle of Agincourt, was kept a prisoner in the Tower of London for many years. He wrote poem after poem to his wife, real valentines. About sixty of them remain. These can be seen among the royal papers in the British Museum.
Flowers as valentines appear nearly two hundred years later. A daughter of Henry IV of France gave a party in honor of St Valentine. Each lady received a beautiful bouquet of flowers from the man chosen as her valentine.
So from Italy, France and England came the pretty custom of sending our friends loving messages on this day. With flowers, with heart-shaped candies, and with valentine cards we honour the good priest who disobeyed Claudius the Cruel.
THE VALENTINE CARD
By the 17th century, handmade cards were oversized and elaborate, while store-bought ones were smaller and costly.
But printers were already beginning to produce a limited number of cards with verses and sketches.
The real revolution came in the early 19th century with a reduction in postal rates. This helped to establish the custom of sending anonymous messages or cards to those one admired.
The United States Post Office in Loveland, Colorado, USA, creates a special and one-of-a-kind cancellation stamp every year in order to celebrate Valentine's Day and the romantic name of Loveland, Colorado. The Post Office is now averaging greater than 300,000 Valentines remailed annually including 104 foreign countries and all 50 United States. The cancellation stamp sample shown here is from 1995.