St. Valentine of Terni, 14 February

The feast of St. Valentine on February 14 is today known and celebrated around the world. This tradition was spread by the Benedictines, the first guardians of the basilica dedicated to the saint in Terni, through their monasteries, first in Italy and then in France and England.

Two St. Valentinos?

St. Valentine of Terni, 14 February
Valentinus (from the Latin "valens", meaning to be in good health) was a common name in ancient Roman times, so there are plenty of candidates for the saint. However, the story of the "Valentinus" who inspired today's cards and flowers is connected to a priest or bishop who celebrated marriages between Christian couples at the time of the persecutions.

During the 20th century, scholars and archaeologists have long debated on the figure of St. Valentine: indeed, on February 14 two holy martyrs of the same name are recorded, priest Valentine of Rome and bishop Valentine of Terni. The assumptions are basically three:

  • The first solution is the classic one, supported by the majority of scholars until a few years ago: the two saints were two separate individuals. The Valentine of Rome was a priest, martyred on February 14 under emperor Gallienus (253-268), who was buried by a Christian named Sabinilla in her own lands at the foot of the Parioli hill. These topographical indications are confirmed by a Chronograph of 354, written by Furius Dionysius Philocalus, which is the earliest mention of a martyr Valentino: here it is said that Pope Julius I built a basilica "quae appellatur Valentini" (that is called of Valentino). Moreover, the presence of a Valentino in Rome is also confirmed by the discovery, in the basilica at the foot of Parioli, of fragments of a poem where Pope Damasus had honored the martyr.
  • The second hypothesis, supported by Franciscan scholar Agostino Amore starting from the mention of the "Chronograph" by Philocalus, is that a martyr Valentino of Rome never existed. Valentino would be the one who financed the construction of the basilica outside the walls under the pontificate of Pope Julius I in the mid-fourth century and that, precisely because of his donation, earned the title of saint in the 6th century.
  • The third hypothesis, advanced by scholar Vincenzo Fiocchi Nicolai, is that the priest of Rome and the bishop of Terni would be the same person. Valentino from Terni came to Rome and was martyred and buried: afterwards his cult spread to his hometown, where the townspeople mentioned him as their episcopus (bishop).

Historical Sources

In the 8th century Venerable Bede wrote in his martyrology:
"16 Kalendas Martias Natale sancti Valentini Interamnensis episcopi, qui tentus a paganis ac virgis caesus, et post diuturnam caedem custodiae mancipatus, cum superari non posset, mediae noctis silentio eiectus de carcere decollatus est, iussu Furiosi Placidi, Urbis praefecti". [16 days before the Kalends of March bishop St. Valentine of Terni, who was arrested by the pagans and beaten with rods, and kept prisoner, since he would not yield, in the middle of the night, driven out of the prison he was beheaded, by order of Furiosus Placidus, prefect of the City]

Bishop and martyr Valentino of Terni is also recorded in the historical and liturgical Martyrologies of Rabanus Maurus and Usuard of the 9th century, and in the Roman Martyrology. To the same period belongs the record of the existence of a basilica in Terni dedicated to the martyr bishop Valentino where Pope Zachary (752 AD) met Lombard King Liutprand.

The basilica whose situation in early Christian times is unknown to us, rose in a quite ancient cemetery, dating back at least to the 4th century (since the oldest inscription found therein mentions the year 366 AD). With the "Passio", written before the 8th century which was the source of venerable Bede, we can go back a few centuries in the series of testimonies on Valentino: this document is dated to the fifth-sixth century AD and therein we learn what follows.

Three young Athenians, Proculus, Ephebus and Apollonius, were studying the Latin language in Rome at the house of orator Craton. The son of man was so "incurvatus dorso, caput habens inter genua" (=curved in his back that head his head between the knees) and no one knew a cure. A friend of Craton, however, reports that his brother suffering from the same disease had been cured by Valentino, "episcopus et civis Interamnis urbis" (bishop and citizen of Terni). Therefore Valentino is called to Rome and after a long conversation on faith and the works necessary for salvation, he made the miracle accepting the promise of conversion by the group, among whom there was also the son of Placidus, the prefect of Rome. The Senate, however, arrested Valentino, who was scourged and beheaded by order of the prefect Placido.

The three young Greek students then stole his body and brought him to Terni "ibique in suburban empto terrae spatio no longe ab eadem civitate, sepolturae honostissimae tradiderunt" (=where in a suburban area they bought nor far from the city they made a very honorable sepulchre).

The Geronimian Martyrology, a collection compiled in the early 5th century in northern Italy, probably at Aquileia, on the basis of several local calendars and other literature sources, records the 14th of February with explicit words: "Interamnae, via Flaminia, miliario ab urbe Roma 63 (o 64), natale Valentini" (=Terni, on the Via Flaminia, 63 (or 64) miles from the city of Rome, hometown of Valentino).

Given the nature and composition of the Geronimian Martyrology, we can derive that at least in the 4th century one martyr Valentino was known and revered in Terni; his "coordinates" were precisely identified, therefore his historical existence is beyond question; impossible to think that this was record concerned a martyr Valentino of Rome. Terni was certainly less known than Rome and it is absurd that the compiler might have mistaken the two cities. In the same Martyrology, Terni is recorded not only on February 14, but also on April 14 and May 1 for the other martyrs; this means that the compiler used a local calendar, transcribing the difficult Latin name of Terni, not only being faithful to the source that he had under his eyes, with the name of a city that maybe did not even know.

There is indeed another document confirming explicitly the episcopate of Valentino, and indirectly the time of his death, but it is the same kind of the "Passio" for Valentine: the "passio" of Feliciano fro, Foligno. Born in Forum Flaminii (today San Giovanni Profiamma) Feliciano went to study in Rome, and the Pope Eleutherius (174-189) welcomed him. Returning to his homeland he began to preach, Pope Victor ( 189-198 ) consecrated him and gave him the use of the pallium, a sign of metropolitan authority. Then he evangelized Foligno, Spello, Bevagna, Assisi, Perugi, Norcia, Trevi, Spoleto and Terni, where "Valentinum diaconum Interamnensium civitatis, dum sibi fortiter adhaerere cognosceret, permissu supradicti Victoris, episcopum ipse sacravit" (=consecrated himself as bishop Valentino deacon of Terni, when he had known that he was a strong believer).


Valentine was buried in Terni near the present Basilica, in a cemetery that already existed in pagan times, where several objects of the 4th and 5th centuries were found. A first basilica was built in the 4th century, outside the walls, on the martyr's tomb. Destroyed by the Goths together with the city in the 6th century, it was rebuilt in the 7th.

At the time of the first or second construction is dated the crypt with the "arcosolium" altar, that is, an altar under a niche covered by an arch, over the tomb of the martyr. Around the 7th century the church was entrusted to the Benedictines. In 742 it was the place of the historic meeting between Pope Zacharias, on his way from Rome to Terni and the old Lombard king Liutprand. The choice of the Basilica of St. Valentine was made by the king because within that church the relics of the glorious martyr were venerated, to whom he attributed a miraculous value. With this meeting the king gave the pope some Italian cities - including Sutri - which was the origin of the Papal States.

In 1605 Bishop Giovanni Antonio Onorati, obtaining a permission from Pope Paul V, ordered to begin the search for the body of the saint. The body of St. Valentine was soon found in a leaden box containing a marble urn, rough outside but carved with reliefs inside. The head was separated from the torso which confirmed death by beheading. The urn was immediately taken to the cathedral. But the people and the Congregation of Rites wanted that the relics of the martyr continued to rest where they had been buried. So it was decided to build a new basilica on the site.

In 1630 the relics were deposited in an artistic ark consists inside a supine statue. The statue could be seen up to some years ago under the main altar rebuilt by Archduke Leopold. Since 2003, Valentino's tomb was moved to the new altar. In the same year she returned to Terni part of the skull that had been stolen from the tomb in 1979.

Biography of San Valentino from Terni

Valentino born ca. 176 in Terni (Interamna Nahars) martyred in Rome, February 14th, 273 AD, is a Roman bishop and martyr venerated as a saint by the Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican Church, and considered the patron saint of lovers and patron of epileptics.

The oldest record of Valentino is in the Martyrologium Hieronymianum, an official document of the Church of the 5th-6th century where his name and death anniversary appear. In the 8th century another document, the "Passio Sancti Valentini", tells details of his martyrdom: the torture, decapitation at night, burial in Terni by the disciples Proculus, Ephebus and Apollonius, their subsequent martyrdom and their burial.

Traditions and legends

Born into a patrician family, Valentino was converted to Christianity and consecrated bishop of Terni in 197, at only 21 years of age. There are many legends have become part of popular culture on episodes of his life.

It is said that, hearing two lovers quarreling, Valentino offered them a rose and begged them to hold it between their hands together without getting pricked by its thorns, and after some time they returned and asked him to join them in marriage. Another version of this story has it that the saint was able to inspire love in the young couple making several pairs of pigeons flying around them and exchanging sweet gestures of affection - from this episode the spread of the expression "lovebirds" is believed to have originated.

Another legend has it that Valentino, already bishop of Terni, celebrated a marriage between Sabinus, a Roman legionary (it was against the law to marry young soldiers who were to fight for the Roman Empire), and Serapia, a young Christian woman, whose parents opposed the marriage. Serapia was discovered to be seriously ill. Sabinus called Valentino to the bedside of the dying girl and asked him to be never separated from his beloved: the bishop baptized him and then united him in marriage to Serapia, after which they both died.

One tradition about Valentino's death is that in the year 270 he was in Rome, at the invitation of orator Craton, to preach the Gospel and convert the pagans. Invited by the emperor Claudius II Gothicus to suspend his evangelization and to abjure his faith, he refused to do so, rather, he tried to convert the emperor to Christianity. On February 14, 270 Valentine was stoned and then beheaded.

Another version tells that Claudius II pardoned him entrusting him to a noble family. Valentino was arrested a second time under Aurelian, who succeeded Claudius II. The empire continued its persecution of Christians, and as the popularity of Valentino was growing up, the Roman soldiers captured him and took him out of the city, along the Via Flaminia, to scourge him, fearing that the people would rise up in his defense. At that time he performed the miracle of restoring sight to the blind daughter of Asterius, his jailer: when he was about to be beheaded, he sent the girl a farewell message that ended with the words: "...from your Valentino", from which the tradition of writing love messages on Valentine's Day might have been born. According to this "passio", Valentino was beheaded on 14 February 273, at 97 years of age, at the hands of the Roman soldier Furius Placidus, under Emperor Aurelian.

What appears from all the traditions is that Valentino was a gentle man, a good and beloved bishop, of great serenity and strong faith, whose nuptial blessing was sought for by young couples; that is why maybe he was also attributed many miracles that pertained love.

The Lupercalia

Lupercali, by Beccafumi Domenico, Palazzo Martelli, Firenze
"Lupercali" (abt 1519), by Beccafumi Domenico (1486-1551), Palazzo Martelli, Firenze.
The celebration of Valentine's Day replaced in the Christian era the Roman Lupercalia: in 496 AD Pope Gelasius I dedicated 14 February to the saint and martyr Valentine, presumably with the aim of christianizing the Roman feast. The Roman Lupercalia were celebrated from 13 to 15 February, in honor of the god Faunus (Latin Lupercus), a protector of cattle sheep and goats from the attack of wolves. The Lupercalia festival was partly also in honor of the "Lupa", the she-wolf who nursed the orphans Romulus and Remus, the twind of the legendary foundation of Rome. The festival was celebrated near the cave of Lupercal, where the twins were nursed by the she-wolf, on the Palatine Hill - where Rome was traditionally founded.

During the Lupercalia, recorded since the 4th century BC, the Romans performed fertility rituals for the coming springtime. The origins of the festival are shrouded in legend: according to Dionysius of Halicarnassus and Plutarch, the Lupercalia may have been instituted by Evander; a typical ritual involved naked men, covered by the skins of sacrificed goats, competing in a foot race from the Palatine hill and striking with whips women along the race course.

According to Ovid, at the time of king Romulus there was a long period of infertility in women. Men and women came therefore in procession to the sacred grove of Juno, at the foot of the Esquiline. Through the rustling of leaves, the goddess replied that women had to be penetrated by a sacred goat, but an Etruscan augur interpreted the oracle by sacrificing a goat, cutting strips of its skin with which naked men hit the back of the women and ten lunar months later the women gave birth.

In another ritual, the names of the men and women who worshiped Lupercus were placed in an urn and mixed. A child was then to choose at random a few couples that for a whole year were to live in intimacy so that the fertility rite could be fulfilled. To put an end to this practice, the Church found "a saint of lovers", identifying him in the St. Valentine of Terni.

These pagan rituals, however, were dedicated to fertility and not romantic love; the aim of the church was to put an end to widespread and unedifying pagan fertility rites, and this started the cult of Valentino as a saint of love, patron of lovers. Today, all over the world, February 14 is celebrated with the exchange of gifts and flowers and, on this day, in Terni, in the Basilica dedicated to the saint, hundreds of brides and grooms exchange their promise.

St. Valentine at Santa Maria in Cosmedin

Bocca della Verità, Santa Maria in Cosmedin
Apart from the Basilica in Terni, another relic ascribed to St. Valentine, his skull, is in Rome at Santa Maria in Cosmedin, a church founded in the 7th century AD in the area once known as "Forum Boarium" (market of oxen). Outside, under a 12th-century porch, is the Bocca della Verità (Mouth of Truth), one of the most famous symbols of Rome thanks to the belief that the mouth will bite the hand of those who had not told the truth. This tradition still survives to the present day, especially between lovers, who stop before the altar of St. Valentine to pray or exchange a promise.

Evolution of St. Valentine's Day

The original religious celebration named after the Christian saint and martyr Saint Valentine of Terni was established by Pope Gelasius I in 496, to replace the previous pagan festival of Lupercalia. The festivity spread especially in France and England by means of the many monasteries of the Benedictines, who were in charge of the Basilica of Saint Valentine in Terni from the second half of the 7th century.

The specific association of Valentine's Day with romantic love is almost certainly later, and the question of its origin is controversial. The modern practice of a feast centered on the exchange of love messages and gifts between lovers probably dates from the early Middle Ages, and its origins might be found in the circle of Geoffrey Chaucer, where the tradition of courteous love took shape. Chaucer wrote "Parliament of Fowles" for the engagement of Richard II of England to Anne of Bohemia on May 3, the day dedicated to a saint of the same name, St. Valentine of Genoa.

Another link might be that in mid-February the first signs of nature awakening appear and in the Middle Ages, particularly in France and England, it was believed that on that date birds began mating and therefore the event was connected to Valentine's Day.

Some historical references suggest that Valentine's Day was dedicated to lovers since the early centuries of the second millennium. Among them is the foundation in Paris, on February 14, 1400, of a "High Court of Love", an institution based on the principles of courtly love. The court was supposed to decide on disputes related to love contracts, betrayal, violence against women, and judges were selected based on their familiarity with love poetry.

The oldest "valentine" recorded dates from the 15th century, and was written by Charles d' Orléans, then held in the Tower of London after his defeat at the Battle of Agincourt (1415). Charles addressed his wife with the words: "Je suis desja d'amour tanné. Ma tres doulce Valentinée..." (I am already sick of love, My very gentle Valentine]

Especially in the Anglo-Saxon countries, and for imitation elsewhere, the use to exchange "valentines" dates back to at least the 19th century. These "valentines" are love notes often shaped in the form of stylized hearts or other themes typical of the popular representation of romantic love (a dove, a cupid with bow and arrows, and so on).

This tradition fueled the industrial production and large-scale marketing of greeting cards dedicated to the event. As early as the mid-19th century in the United States some entrepreneurs like Esther Howland (1828-1904) began producing Valentine's cards on an industrial scale, though Howland was inspired by a tradition already existing in Britain.

Large-scale production of greeting cards began to boost the marketing of the anniversary and its penetration into popular culture. The process of commercialization of the celebration continued in the second half of the 20th century, especially in the United States, and little by little the tradition of amorous tickets started to become secondary to the exchange of gifts like boxes of chocolates, bouquets of flowers, or jewelry. The Greeting Card Association estimates that on 14th February each year about a billion greeting card are sent, which makes this event second nowadays, as regards the number of cards purchased and shipped, only to Christmas.