The Black African Saint Valentine

by Aphra Behn

Who was Saint Valentine? Well, Saint Valentine was a priest. Or maybe, a bishop. Or possibly, a martyr… an African martyr. Ahhh, listen to the wingnut heads explode as we consider the possibility that good old St. Valentine might not have been a blue-eyed blonde-haired European, but a Berber, a Semite, an Ethiopian. Maybe, in fact, a recognizable black man.

Little is known personally about Saint Valentine the martyr of Africa. But he would have lived in the multi-ethnic, multi-colored world of later Imperial Rome, where Africans played key roles in the development of "Western" Civilization. Whether it’s founding monasticism, writing literature, developing theology, or sitting on the imperial throne of Rome itself, Africans were everywhere in this world. Join me for a joint Valentine's Day-Black History Month special, as we try to re-imagine the world of Saint Valentine…in all its colors.

The World of St. Valentine

According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, “At least three different Saint Valentines, all of them martyrs, are mentioned in the early martyrologies under the date of 14 February.” One was a priest in Rome, the second one was a bishop of Interamna (now Terni, Italy) and the third St. Valentine was a martyr in the Roman province of Africa. Of the three men known as "Saint Valentine," the African martyr is the least well known; no romantic associations are attached to his legend, and beyond his martyrdom in what is now North Africa around the year 270, little is recorded of his life. In that year, Roman rule encompassed many provinces across the northern band of the continent, stretching from Egypt to modern-day Morocco.

In the previous centuries, northern Africa had seen waves of colonization by Semitic-speaking Phoenicians (Carthage), Greek-speaking Macedonian and Hellenes (in Libya and Egypt). These newcomers mixed with the native Afro-Asiatic inhabitants of the area, dubbed "Berbers" by the Greeks. It wasn't a compliment; the term is related to the term "barbarian" as a derogatory name for non-Greek speakers: people whose language was nonsense–"berberberberber," the approximate equivalent of "blablahblah." Their own name for themselves is "Amazigh" or "Imazighen," "free men."

19th century engraving of Amazigh cavalry on the column of Trajan
19th century engraving of the Column of Trajan showing Amazigh cavalry

By the time of St. Valentine, the entire northern part of Africa had come under Roman jurisdiction, in the form of the provinces of Mauritania, Numidia, “Africa” (which included Tunisia as well as parts of Algeria and Libya), Cyrenaica, and Egypt. Ethnic Latins and the other peoples of the Roman Empire mingled with all of the other peoples of the area. Throw in extensive trading links to Nubia (Kush) and Ethiopia, and we can imagine those provinces as an ethnically, linguistically, and religiously diverse mix of peoples, languages, and goods. Kushite mercenaries mixed with Romanized Amazigh merchants, Egyptian priests of Isis, and Greek-speaking Latin administrators in the cities of Alexandria and other cities. From these provinces, Rome was well-supplied with grains, figs, grapes, beans, marble, pottery, olives, textiles, and papyrus. Many goods, many languages, and many colors of skin.

Philosophers and Emperors

Female mummy portrait from brooklyn Museum
Female mummy portrait from the Brooklyn Museum, Roman period of Egypt.

Ideas, religions, and philosophies flowed in and out along with the trade goods. Part of the wider Hellenistic (Greek) world, Alexandria in particular attracted many noted philosophers and produced its own. Alexandria would be come legendary for its library and its schools, for philosophers such as the great female mathematician Hypatia (of a much later period).

A few others included Jewish philosopher Philo, who lived in Alexandria around 40 CE, worked to reconcile Jewish teaching with Greek philosophy. The Athenian philosopher Antiochus of Askalon eventually settled in Alexandria, and taught a number of pupils, including Arius Didymus. Didymus, a Stoic thinker, was a friend of Emperor Octavian (Augustus); allegedly their friendship helped save Alexandria from destruction as he battled Mark Antony for control of Egypt and Rome.

Did I say friends of emperors? How about Africa as the source of emperors? In CE 193, Libyan native Lucius Septimius Severus was proclaimed emperor by his troops. Although not born into the Senatorial class, he had been made a senator by Marcus Aurelius in 172, and had made a name for himself in the army. His rule was rent by wars and financial difficulty, but he also made significant military and legal reforms in the Empire:

Severus brought many changes to the Roman military. Soldiers' pay was increased by half, they were allowed to be married while in service, and greater opportunities were provided for promotion into officer ranks and the civil service. …. The emperor created a new, larger praetorian guard out of provincial soldiers from the legions. Increases were also made to the two other security forces based in Rome: the urban cohorts, who maintained order; and the night watch, who fought fires and dealt with overnight disturbances, break-ins and other petty crime…. The emperor's position as ultimate appeals judge had brought an ever-increasing legal workload to his office.

Bust of Septimius Severrus from Munich
Bust of Septimius Severus, Munich

During the second century, a career path for legal experts was established, and an emperor came to rely heavily upon his consilium, an advisory panel of experienced jurists, in rendering decisions. Severus brought these jurists to even greater prominence. A diligent administrator and conscientious judge, the emperor appreciated legal reasoning and nurtured its development. His reign ushered in the golden age of Roman jurisprudence, and his court employed the talents of the three greatest Roman lawyers: Papinian, Paul and Ulpian.—Michael L. Meckler Ohio State University

The First Black Emperor?

We've established that Severus was from Africa. Was he "black"? (This is a Black History Month diary, after all.) Frustratingly for modern North Americans, the ancient Romans did not share our view of race. Pre-Darwinian in their thinking, they certainly did not categorize inheritable characteristics as 19th century racist theorists did (and as their 21st century counterparts sadly still do.) They recorded physical characteristics sometimes, but not for the convenience of modern US racial categories. Their lines of "us and them" were drawn more firmly around notions of citizenship than race, "civility" (i.e., Hellenization) than ethnicity.

Linguistics suggest that Severus' family was Phoenician in background; the Severan Tondo, a rare surviving painting, suggests he may have been darker complected than his wife, who was of Latin descent.

The Severan Tondo,a protrait of Emperor Septimus and his family
The Severan Tondo, in the Staatliche Museum, Berlin.

He might not have been considered black today, but there’s a good chance he would not be considered white, either, in modern North America. And it is no exaggeration to say that many of the authors and figures we consider "Roman" were in fact not simply Latinate, but from a wide mix of peoples and "races": Germanic. Amazigh (Berber). Celtic. Egyptian. Macedonian. Germanic. And more…

An Amazigh Author

Take Lucius Apuleius of Madaurus, author of The Golden Ass and other "Roman" works. He was a follower of the Mystery religion of Isis, one of Egypt's great exports to the Hellenic World. The Golden Ass is a funny, often bawdy, yet deeply spiritual account of one initiate's travels through this religion of love, magic, and transformation. He was also the author of several philosophical treatises. Sometime between 150 and 160, he was accused of practicing malignant magic, entrapping a wealthy older widow into marrying him. His defense, so eloquent that it was preserved, explicitly claimed his own status as a "barbarian" (Berber), and contains this impassioned, unapologetic assertion of his African identity:

About my homeland, it is situated on the border of Numidia and Gaetulia. I am part Numidian and part Gaetulian. I don’t see why I should be ashamed of this…Why did I offer this information? So that from now on, Semelianus, you may be less offended by me, and so that you may extend your good-will and forgiveness, if by some negligence, I did not select your Attic Zarat as my birthplace.

I don't know about you, but when I studied Apuleius' works in school, he was presented to me as "Roman" author, rather than an African one. While not denying that he was part of a wider Latin-speaking community and living in a Roman polity, is it not also significant that this practitioner of an African mystery religion was also proud of his African roots? Again, it’s impossible to say if he would be seen as “black” today. Amazigh people have many different complexions. But he did not self-identify as simply Roman, and it seems only right to acknowledge that.

Saint Valentine and the African Martyrs

And what about poor St. Valentine? I haven't forgotten him. Frankly, we don't know how he might self-identify at all, nor do we have this information for most of the North African Christians who were later revered as saints. Three early Popes (or Bishops of Rome) hailed from Africa. Pope Saint Victor I, the first of these, was born while the writer Apuleius was still alive, and served as Pope from 186 CE until 197. We know frustratingly little of his life (or complexion), but it's interesting to compare the picture of him made by European Christians in the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls (at right) with those from modern Catholics who acknowledge at least the possibilities of his Blackness. (Images not reproduced here for copyright reasons.)

Portrait of St Victor
St. Victor from the portrait at St Paul’s Outside the Wall, Rome.

Certainly, as Christianity spread through the empire, it attracted many adherents in Africa–of all of its varied ethnic and linguistic backgrounds.

Mosaic of St Perpetua in Croatia
St Perpetua, Croatian version.

One of the earliest texts written by a Christian woman is from African Carthage–the Passion of Saints Perpetua and Felicitas, written in part by Perpetua herself, a 22 year-old-mother awaiting martyrdom along with her heavily pregnant servant, Felicitas.

Revered in Christian martyrologies for centuries hence, they were favourite subjects of medieval European martyrologies, often presented as, well, European, as in the image at left, from Croatia.

Dark skinned woman from north African mummy painting
Female mummy portrait.

But there’s a very good chance that Perpetua and Felicitas of Carthage, looked more like this woman on the right, whose portrait is recorded on a mummy portrait from around the time of their martyrdom.

The contrast reminds us that many of the roots of medieval European religion and culture came from Roman Africa, even if medieval Europeans used artistic conventions that made all the early saints appear "white."

Saint Anthony and the Monastic Model

But there are other African saints about whom we know more, much more. Take the Egyptian Saint Anthony, one of the fathers of monasticism. Where would medieval Christendom have been without its ubiquitous monks? Indeed, where would all of Europe have been without the texts those men (and their female counterparts) laboriously preserved and copied? Without the piety and fame of Anthony, who sought out the Egyptian desert, it seems unlikely that such communities would ever have flourished. But the man whose legacy played such a role in European history spoke Coptic, and African language, not a European one.

Around 270 CE (the era of Valentine's martyrdom), Anthony fled into the desert to establish a solitary, ascetic existence that would bring him closer to God. This was nothing new, but the community of men who sought him out and tried to emulate him was. In 305, Anthony re-emerged from his solitary existence to give these men a Rule of order, an attempt to establish guidelines for monastic living. This helped to establish the idea that hermits might live in a sort of community, bound by a common Rule; they were not simply individual holy men but part of a wider community. Significantly modified later by St. Benedict, this communal model for monasticism played a major role in shaping European and world history. But the fact that monasticism is an Egyptian legacy somehow got left out of my grade school books of saints.

Ethiopian Christians

Ethioptian triptych detail. Museum Rietberg, Zurich, Switzerland;
Jesus at the last judgement. Ethiopian triptych detail. Museum Rietberg, Zurich, Switzerland;

Africa is home to many other saints and notable from late Antiquity–many of them Ethiopian. The Ethiopian Church claims to be one of the oldest branches of Christianity, hearkening back to the Book of Acts 8:27:

Then the angel of the Lord said to Philip, Start out and go south to the road that leads down from Jerusalem to Gaza. So he set out and was on his way when he caught sight of an Ethiopian. This man was a eunuch, a high official of the Kandake (Candace) Queen of Ethiopia in charge of all her treasure.

Around 305, the Lebanese-born Egyptian bishop St. Frumentius traveled to Ethiopia, where he successfully began (or re-founded) a Christian Church in that country. Ethiopian Christianity retained strong tied with the eastern Church until the 20th century, and remains a distinctive branch of the Christina family, with its own list of African saints and notables. Medieval Europeans were intrigued by Ethiopia, and conflated tales of its Christian kingdom with stories from travelers to China and India to invent the mythical kingdom of “Prester John," a powerful Christian monarch living somewhere in Africa or Asia.

Saint Moses, Patron of Non-Violence

One of the most famous Ethiopian saints lived in the Romanized world. "Moses the Ethiopian," lived in Egypt between 330 and 405 CE. Ex-slave, violent criminal and gang leader, his life was transform

Saint Moses
Saint Moses

ed by an encounter with an abbot whose monastery Moses originally intended tor ob. Treated with love and compassion by the man he intended to assault, Moses was overwhelmed with repentance and became a monk himself. He was eventually ordained a priest and founded his own monastic community of 75 men.

Around 405, his monastery was attacked by nomadic criminals; totally committed to peace, St. Moses refused to use any violence, even to defend himself. While most of his brothers fled, Moses and seven others greeted their attackers with open arms and were martyred. For his commitment to pacificism, he is sometimes cited as the patron saint of nonviolent protest. He is more often revered in Eastern Christianity than in the West.

Augustine, Father of the Church

Perhaps you're familiar with St. Augustine of Hippo, also known as Auerelius Augustine, author of The Confessions of St. Augustine and The City of God. He is credited with formulating the doctrine of original sin and asserting one of the earliest clear views of predestination (a position which has made him very important to Protestant theologians as well as Catholic ones). He was also African. Born around 354 in Tagaste (present-day Souk Ahras, Algeria), he studied in Numidia and Carthage before traveling to Rome to better learn rhetoric.

Saint Monica and Augustine, 1846, painted by Ary Scheffer.
Saint Monica and Augustine, 1846, painted by Ary Scheffer.

His mother, Monica, was a devoutly Christian woman, but his abusive father was not. She is a saint in her own right, and traditionally for American Christians, is usually portrayed as a (very) white woman, as in the 19th century image, commonly used on prayer cards, at left. (I owned one of these growing up.) Although the ethnicity of his father Patricius is impossible to tell, Monica or Monnica had a traditional Amazigh name, and Tagaste was heavily Amazigh. Although Augustine studied Latin and Greek, and they apparently spoke Latin at home, he retained an 'African" accent for some time which he was at pains to lose later in life. Monica was an important figure in St. Augustine’s life, and played a key role in his eventual version.

Female mummy portrait from Roman north Africa.

But why don’t we think of her like this portrait at right?

Or perhaps like this beautiful modern icon of St. Monica as a recognizably black woman?

Whatever she looked like, Monica’s early pleas that her son convert were little heeded. Augustine had little interest in Christianity, dismissing it as philosophically simplistic and uninteresting. He spent much of his youth learning and teaching rhetoric while enjoying the good life. At one point, he fathered a son. He eventually agreed to his mother's wish that he settle down and marry a respectable woman, but while waiting for his fiancee to reach the age of consent, he took up with another mistress. Around 387, he went through a conversion experience. Thanks to his mother and to St Ambrose of Milan, he became a Christian–and not just any kind of Christian. He put aside thoughts of marriage and resolved to live the celibate life of a monk back in Africa. (His conversion had been in part inspired by reading the life of the Egyptian Saint Anthony.) But his rhetorical and administrative talents were not those that could be easily hidden from the world, and by 390 he had been conscripted into the priesthood. In 396 he was appointed bishop of Hippo (Annaba, in Algeria).

The Intellect of Augustine

From this vantage in Africa, Augustine became famous for his sermons and for his spiritual learning. A paragraph is hardly sufficient to describe his accomplishments and roles. It is important to note that in all of his works, Augustine emphasized inward spirituality over outward conformity ( a key issue in his struggle with the Donatist heresy). It is his definition of a sacrament–"an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace"—that generations of catechism students have learned to dutifully recite. He struggled all his life with sexual temptation, and is responsible for a significant portion of the Church's teaching on sexual sin, as well as its thoughts on the free will of mankind. He made one of the first statements about "just war" in his City of God, saying that wars should be fought only to stop wrong-doing and for the end of peace, and :

Augustine of Hippo by Simone Martini, medieval Italian painter
Saint Augustine by medieval Italian painter Simon Martini

… it is the wrongdoing of the opposing party which compels the wise man to wage just wars; and this wrong-doing, even though it gave rise to no war, would still be matter of grief to man because it is man's wrong-doing… (Chapter 7) … It is therefore with the desire for peace that wars are waged, even by those who take pleasure in exercising their warlike nature in command and battle. And hence it is obvious that peace is the end sought for by war. (Chapter 12) .

The City of God offered important solace to the inhabitants of the Roman world; in 410,Vandals sacked Rome itself. As their world crumbled around them, Augustine counseled his flock to forgo what he called "City of Man" in favor of the "City of God"–the cultivation of spiritual rather than earthly values. This text proved highly influential in medieval Europe, offering a spiritual alternative to the fractured earthly politics which followed for centuries on the fall of Rome.

Augustine's writings do not all jibe comfortably with modern sensibilities. But he was certainly no fundamentalist in the modern sense, and perhaps one of his greatest contributions to the Western world was his insistence that Christians could and should use the gifts of the intellect—that knowledge gained by pagans was just a useful as knowledge gained by Christians. Without his statements, it is doubtful that the works of classical Greece and Rome could have been so extensively studied and preserved in the West. He did not favour a literal interpretation of Genesis, when it clearly contradicted human observation and reason. (Indeed, he found it embarrassing that Christians would do so.) Rather, he suggested that Genesis was a work concerned with spiritual truths rather than the literal "nature of the skies":

With the scriptures it is a matter of treating about the faith. For that reason, as I have noted repeatedly, if anyone, not understanding the mode of divine eloquence, should find something about these matters [about the physical universe] in our books, or hear of the same from those books, of such a kind that it seems to be at variance with the perceptions of his own rational faculties, let him believe that these other things are in no way necessary to the admonitions or accounts or predictions of the scriptures. In short, it must be said that our authors knew the truth about the nature of the skies, but it was not the intention of the Spirit of God, who spoke through them, to teach men anything that would not be of use to them for their salvation.” (The Literal Interpretation of Genesis[AD 408])

The Question of Color

Mummy Portrait from the Museum of Cleveland
Mummy portrait, Museum of Cleveland

Afrocentric scholars have sometimes been criticized for their rush to claim the "Black-ness" of the past. Yet there is much to be claimed. On the other had, there is no denying that the popular view of Roman history in North America remains deeply Eurocentric. Hollywood's Roman films tend to be quite pale and blue-eyed, and their views of Egypt in almost any period are the same. I love the film Agora, and Rachel Weisz was a terrific Hypatia, but a much darker skinned actress could have been a completely plausible choice. And even outside of popular culture, there’s a problem. "Roman" authors in school texts are routinely denied a discussion of their unique ethnic origins, even when (as in the case of Aupuleius) those origins were clearly of some import to the authors themselves.

Where the Romans were silent on the matter of physical appearance, medieval Europeans filled in with pictures of people who looked just like themselves. We can appreciate the beauty of that medieval art, while recognizing that a blonde-haired, blue-eyed portrait of St. Augustine is about as unrealistic as Sallman's 1941 portrait of redheaded Jesus that hangs in so many American homes.

Since I first wrote this essay in 2007, racism in the United States has only intensified. The election of President Obama has brought the ugliest expressions of white supremacy into mainstream political discourse. Membership in hate groups has risen. Hatred for Muslims, with its not-too-well disguised racist underpinnings, is being whipped up not only by racist groups but by major candidates for the office of President of the United States. It seems obligatory for Republican politicians to speak of non-white Latino peoples in the most dehumanizing and degrading terms, as animals to be fenced out of the country. So much hate in the name of preserving white supremacy. And so often voiced in terms of “our culture,” “Western civilization” or the like. But the whiteness of that culture is a dangerous, damnable fiction, one that erases how much of “Western” intellectual tradition, and how much of the modern American world, was shaped by people of color. Without St. Anthony’s monasticism, there might well be no “Western” culture. Without Augustine of Hippo, the intellectual contribution of non-Christian philosophers might have been shut out of the Christian intellectual tradition entirely. And so on, and so forth.

Mummy portrait from Fayum
How I think of St. Valentine. A Fayum mummy portrait.

Since I first wrote this essay, there have been amazing pushbacks against the distorted historical whiteness of our culture. One of my very favorite corners of the web Medieval POC, dedicated to rendering people of color in European art more visible to the public. (Its author, sadly, is subject to vicious harassment for her work.) We’ve seen film representations of amazing historical figures like Dido Elizabeth Belle and Solomon Northrup and Nat Turner to remind us that black history did not begin in the 20th century. Yet I’m looking at the Oscars, and it’s pretty darn clear we’ve got miles to go.

When I first wrote this essay, I asked, “Does the color of your (Saint) Valentine really matter?” It’s clear it still does. It matters that people of African descent can see themselves in this history, and it matters than people not of African descent can see that too. I hope that on this Valentine’s Day we can spare a bit of love and remembrance for all those whose contributions are too little remembered because of the color of their skin. And also? For those whose contributions are remembered while their identities have been erased. Happy Valentine’s Day, and I hope you have a great Black History Month.

Republished from DailyKos.