Love Struck in Ancient Rome: The Origin of Valentine’s Day

Legend has it that Valentine's Day was sparked between the embrace of two Italian lovers, Sabino and Serapia.

By: Tony Traficante, ISDA Contributing Editor

“I love you today, as I have from the start, and I shall love you forever, with all my heart.”


Of course it’s celebrated in Italy! Initially, not as a day of love, but in honor of the Saint and Bishop San Valentino of Terni.

There is a beautiful legendary love story associated with Valentine’s Day in Italy, not Romeo and Juliet, instead Sabino and Serapia. “Ma scusi” (but excuse me), isn’t Italy all about love?

Sabino — a young, dynamic Roman Centurion — was cruising through a piazza in Terni when he spied the beautiful young Italian ragazza, Serapia. He was immediately smitten by her beauty and fell in love–well, he was Italian after all.

Heart throbbing and eyes glued to her lovely, smooth face, he knew she was to be his wife. So, without hesitation, the dashing officer, with medals glistening, moved toward the young lass to introduce himself.

After many conversations and several “passeggiate intorno alla piazza,” (walks around the piazza), and with as much formality as he could muster, he finally asked for her hand in marriage.

The young Signorina, shocked but nonetheless flattered — and having the same strong feelings for the Centurion — consented. But it was not their decision. So, they hurried off to meet with Serapia’s parents to seek their permission to marry. But alas, the parents refused!

“Why!” Demanded Sabino.

“You, Sabino, are a pagan and Serapia is Christian. Such a union is not permitted,” said the parents.

Distraught and angry, Sabino refused to give up. Serapia, knowing the reputation of the great Bishop Valentino of Terni, suggested Sabino go see him about being converted and baptized.

Valentino, a well-respected clergy, was christened a Bishop in 197 AD, dedicated his life to preaching the gospel, and to the protection of Christianity in his city, where there was much religious persecution. He was, also, known as the protector of young couples in love, and thus the day became known as — you got it — Valentine’s Day. A day for lovers.

The love-struck Sabino promptly agreed to the convert. Unfortunately, as preparations were made to celebrate Sabino’s baptism into Christianity, and the couple’s anticipated marriage, Serapia became seriously ill. Bishop Valentino was immediately called to give the young girl last rites, who by then was at death’s door.

Sabino, desperate and afraid of losing his beloved, begged the Bishop not to allow death to separate him from Serapia. Bishop Valentino hurried to baptize Sabino, and at the same time, joined the young couple in marriage. And as the Bishop was completing the holy rituals, “un sonno beatificante avvolse quei due cuori per l’eternità” (a peaceful sleep descended on the two lovers as their spirits were elevated into heavenly eternity).

Join Sunday Supper, OrderISDA’s weekly e-newsletter, for the latest serving of all things Italian. 

Make the pledge and become a member of Italian Sons and Daughters of America today!

Share your favorite recipe, and we may feature it on our website.

Join the conversation, and share recipes, travel tips and stories.