In the third century, the Roman Empire was ruled by Emperor Claudius II Gothicus. He was nicknamed Claudius the Cruel because of his harsh leadership and his tendency for getting into wars and abusing his people. In fact, he was getting into so many wars during the third century that he was having a difficult time recruiting enough soldiers.
Claudius believed that recruitment for the army was down because Roman men did not want to leave their loves or families behind, so he canceled all marriages and engagements in Rome. Thousands of couples saw their hopes of matrimony dashed by the single act of a tyrant. And no one seemed interested in standing up to the emperor.
But a simple Christian priest named Valentine did come forward and stood up for love. He began to secretly marry soldiers before they went off to war, despite the emperor’s orders. In 269 A.D., Emperor Claudius found out about the secret ceremonies. He had Valentine thrown into prison and deemed that he would be put to death.
As Valentine was awaiting execution, he fell in love with a blind girl who happened to be the jailer’s daughter. On the eve of his execution, with no writing instruments available, Valentine is said to have written her a sonnet in ink that he squeezed from violets. Legend has it that his words made the blind woman see again. It was a brief romance because the next day Valentine was clubbed to death by Roman executioners.
St. Valentine gave his life so that young couples could be bonded together in holy matrimony. They may have killed the man, but not his spirit. Even centuries after his death, the story of Valentine’s self-sacrificing commitment to love was legendary in Rome. Eventually, he was granted sainthood and the Catholic Church decided to create a feast in his honor. They picked February 14 as the day of celebration because of the ancient belief that birds (particularly lovebirds, but also owls and doves) began to mate on that very day.