You can blame the Romans for the cult of St Valentine. Although the origins of the saint are obscure, the standard traditions describe him as a Christian priest martyred by the Romans in the third century AD. How he became associated with romantic love remains a mystery. It may be related to the fact that his Feast Day falls in February, which has always been a popular time for fertility festivals in the Northern Hemisphere; as cultures celebrate surviving the winter and look forward to spring.
In anycase, while the Ancients would have sympathised with our desire to celebrate love as the snow begins to thaw and the sap begins to rise, they would not have recognised the soppy, sentimental version of love that we celebrate. For the Greeks and the Romans, Love was a dangerous, unsettling emotion. Plato describes Love as the bastard son of Poverty, living a life of destitution, driven by desire and hunger. Love turns soldiers into slaves. It leaves chaos in its wake. The poet Sappho coined the word ‘bittersweet’ to describe love:
Once again, Love, that the loosener of limbs plagues me,
Bittersweet, unconquerable, slinking creature
Yet, for all the pain that love brought her, Sappho still managed to produce one of the best descriptions of the symptoms love in Western literature. She sets the bar high. If you want to know what ‘true love’ feels like, Sappho spells it out:
… your sweet voice and charming laugh. It makes
my heart pounds in my breast.
The moment that I look at you,
All sound escapes me.
My tongue is struck dumb, and
All of a sudden a subtle fire rushes under my skin
I’m struck blind and my ears roar.
Sweat pours down me and I tremble
I am greener than the grass
I resemble someone
Close to death …
This poem was one of Sappho’s most popular. It was loved by the Greeks and Romans. The Roman poet Catullus even produced a version to woo his beloved, Lesbia. It is one of a whole series of influential, striking verse devoted to her. If you’re looking for something to write in your Valentine’s Day card, you could do no better than the following - although you might want to substitute Lesbia’s name!
Let us live, my Lesbia, and let us love,
We will count as nothing the
Disapproval of dried-up moralists.
Suns will rise and set.
But for us, when the short light, has set
There is only never-ending sleep
Give me a thousand kisses, then a hundred
And then another thousand, and a second hundred
Then yet another thousand and another hundred
We will get lost in the counting
So that no jealous person can ever know
How many kisses that we have shared.
Alastair J.L. Blanshard
Paul Eliadis Chair of Classics and Ancient History