Apart from his name, what did a Roman-era Christian martyr have to do with the millions the Hallmark card company, chocolatiers and florists rake in on Feb. 14?
Not much, according to Ingrid Holmberg, past chair of Greek and Roman studies at the University of Victoria.
Several interesting and conflicting details emerge when searching for the origins of today's Valentine's Day. Apparently there were as many as three St. Valentines, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia. The one most linked to all the latter-day hearts and flowers is the St. Valentine put to death about 270 AD by Emperor Claudius.
The legend is that this Valentine continued to wed young lovers in defiance of an edict by Claudius the Cruel. The emperor had banned weddings, as lovestruck young men were reluctant to enlist in his army.
For his treasonous championing of true love, Valentine was beaten and beheaded on Feb. 14.
This coincided with the month-long festival of Lupercalia, in which young men drew a girl's name as a partner for the festival.
This could be the primitive origins of today's Valentine's cards. Except Holmberg can find no proof for this Roman-era literary exchange between the sexes.
Worse still for romantics, Holmberg says the sentimentalizing of St. Valentine isn't rooted in Roman history, but some time in the Middle Ages. "A total medieval fabrication," she says, although the legend fits that period's concept of courtly love.
Nonetheless, the professor confirms one St. Valentine was martyred by the Romans around Feb. 14, 270 AD. Far more likely, she suspects, for helping Christians escape than anything as secular as romance.
"The Roman Catholic church isn't going to celebrate a romantic figure. If he was, they'd probably erase him from the record," the pragmatic professor says.
St. Valentine's legend aside, the seeds for some modern traditions might have sprouted with the Greeks and Romans. Early in the new year, both had what could loosely be described as extended fertility festivals, roughly coinciding with Feb. 14.
"Whether they're connected with Valentine's Day is dubious at best," says Holmberg, increasingly sounding like a Valentine's Day spoilsport.
One recorded feature of Lupercalia involves priests smacking young women with the bloody skins of dogs and goats. This was to encourage fertility, says Holmberg.
The red of the blood is the colour most associated with today's valentines.
Today's valentine heart-shape bears little resemblance to the actual blood-pumping organ. One argument says it really represents female buttocks. Not just any female's but those of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love.
More academically at home among the Greeks, Holmberg doesn't dismiss this. The Greeks, according to the professor, did revere buttocks. So much so that they erected a statue known as Aphrodite Kallipygos, which is roughly translated as "the goddess with the beautiful buttocks."
The valentine heart shape is also seen in the seeds represented on an Aegean coin, adds Holmberg. They are the seeds of the now-extinct silphium plant, which, according to Wikipedia, was an early herbal contraceptive.
Bow-and-arrow-toting Cupid began infecting unsuspecting young lovers in Roman times. He's the son of Venus, the Roman goddess of love.
Any armchair Freudian worth his fantasies knows what Cupid's arrows symbolize. So too all those long-stemmed red roses landing on desktops and doorsteps Feb. 14.
While Holmberg remains professionally skeptical regarding any classical connections to Valentine's Day, she does join in the fun each year. She has been sending her husband Valentine's Day cards for 12 years.