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

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

By: Tony Traficante, ISDA Contributing Editor 

It is believed that Valentine’s Day, “il giorno degli innamoratti,” had its beginnings in Italy many centuries ago.

Although there were several Christian martyrs named Valentine, the day may have taken its name from a priest who was martyred about 270 A.D. by the emperor Claudius II Gothicus. According to legend, the priest signed a letter “from your Valentine” to his jailer’s daughter, whom he had befriended and, by some accounts, healed from blindness. Some historians contend the holiday was named after St. Valentine of Terni, a bishop, who defied the emperor’s orders and secretly married couples to spare the husbands from war. It is for this reason that his feast day is associated with love.

Italy is known for many attributes: its beauty, history, food, famous people, and its international contributions. It is the land of romance and love. Its history, and legends, abound with stories of loving couples, albeit some tragic. As examples, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, about two feuding families of Verona, who forbid love and marriage between the two. Dante Paolo and Francesca, in “La Divina Commedia,” sinful lovers, were killed by Paolo’s brother to whom Francesca was promised. And, in “I Promessi Sposi,” Alessandro Manzoni writes of the complicated love relationship between Renzo and Lucia.

There is one story not well known. It is the tragic legendary love story of Sabino, a Roman Centurion, and the beautiful young Serapia. Lovers who met by chance, fall in love and are forbidden to marry because of religious differences. His love so strong, Sabino, a Pagan, agrees to convert to Christianity. In the process of completing his Baptismal vows, his love, Serapia, becomes deathly ill. Before his beloved is taken away from him, Sabino pleads with Bishop Valentine to perform the holy ritual of marriage. Sadly, just as the ceremony comes to an end, death descends on both lovers lifting their spirits to the heavens.

There is a delightful Italian folk tale about how young Signorine find their man. It claims that an unmarried girl will marry the first man she sees on Valentine’s Day (within a year). And so, many young ladies wake early on Valentine’s Day and stand watch by their window, waiting for the man of their dreams. (I wonder if it works the other way)?

Not long ago, a new tradition sprang up in Italy between young lovers. They liked to attach a padlock to a bridge railing or lamp post, put their names on it, then throw away the key. It is an expression that their love will last a lifetime. Today, that practice is being frowned upon by some towns that want it ended. They believe the custom detracts from the natural beauty of the bridges, and lamp posts.

Falling in love is a beautiful adventure. It consumes you with feelings of passion, romance, and sensuality. Butterflies invade your stomach. Love is having a partner to share life; to share dreams. It means having that special person beside you, who understands you, who will be with you always. 

Although Valentine’s Day may seem frivolous to some, to most, it is a time to express, or renew, one’s love with their most important partner. No matter where it is observed, the message is always the same: “Tu sei il mio amore, la mia vita,” you are my love, my life. I will always be with you; without you, I am nothing—”Won’t you be my Valentine?”

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