In ancient Rome, February 14 – the day that we call Saint Valentine’s Day – was known as Lupercalia, the Festival of the Lupercal.
According to Roman tradition, the Lupercal was the cave at the foot of the Palatine Hill – one of the famous Seven Hills of Rome – where Romulus and Remus were abandoned at birth. Instead of dying of exposure as they were meant to, the twin boys survived and were found and suckled by a she-wolf. They later grew up to be the original founders of the city of Rome.
Plutarch’s Life of Julius Caesar tells us that an important feature of the Lupercalia was a naked dash around the streets of Rome by noble youths and magistrates, who carried leather thongs with which they would whip nearby spectators. According to popular belief, any barren women struck in this way were more likely to conceive, and any pregnant women who were struck would have an easier labour.
Pope Gelasius I abolished the pagan festival of the Lupercalia in the fifth century AD, and it became instead the feast day of Saint Valentine. Who was Saint Valentine? No one is absolutely sure, but the two Valentines commemorated on February 14 were martyred for opposing the policies of Roman emperors – or maybe they took their fundraising activities a little too seriously.
The Palatine Hill was where many affluent Romans resided –including several Roman emperors – and is the origin of our modern word ‘palace’.
The association of Saint Valentine’s Day with the idea of romantic love appears to be a medieval invention related to the mating habits of birds.
“For this was on Saint Valentine’s Day / When ev’ry fowl cometh to choose her mate.”
– Geoffrey Chaucer (1340–1400)