Will I Be Your Valentine?

On February 14 in AD 269, Claudius Gothicus, the Roman emperor, executed a local priest named Valentinus who had brazenly attempted to convert the monarch to Christianity. Valentinus eventually became a martyr and a saint whose namesake gave way to the bubbly love holiday we all recognize today. But two thousand years ago Christianity was still just a tiny sect hiding in the shadows of the dominant, polytheistic Romans. For almost three centuries after the crucifixion in Calgary, Christians survived as a persecuted group of radicals who believed in someone and something other than the Roman emperor and Rome. Finally, in AD 313, Emperor Constantine formally legalized the religion throughout the empire and became the first Christian emperor.

Nearly two millennia after such momentous events, long after the bones of such historical figures had turned to dust, Christianity is the world’s dominant religion. Such an idea must have been unthinkable to the average Roman citizen during the glory days of the empire. Christians, along with other criminals and heretics, were infamously subjected to damnatio ad bestias, a form of capital punishment known as “condemnation to beasts”. An odd faith from the fringes of the empire, whose members were torn apart by lions as mass spectacle, overtaking Rome in influence and longevity? Madness. Madness and stupidity.

But that’s exactly what happened. It took a thousand years or two to happen. But it happened. Is there a special day set aside to honor Claudius Gothicus?

Today, legions of forgetful husbands, boyfriends, lovers, would-be lovers, and secret admirers throng greeting card aisles across America. They are taking part in the annual, commercial veneration of a man who once administered to persecuted heretics living in a hostile society. Legend has it that Valentinus cut out heart shapes from parchment, giving them to the weary, early Christians to remind them of their vows to each other and to their faith. In fact, the story goes that he signed one final note to an old friend before his execution with two words: Your Valentine.