Monday, 15 December 2014

A Question of Faith and Ancient Curse Tablets

We live in a world with a large array of attitudes towards faith.  From a complete absence of faith to strong devoutness to religious fundamentalism:  faith is taking a prominent role in today's society.  The role of religion and faith in contemporary society is sometimes very confusing.  The association between religious faith and political aims is extremely apparent, not just in the Middle East, but also in western countries.  In the case of Australia, we need look no further than the current federal parliament. 

I find the issue of faith and politics interesting owing to the manner in which studies into Roman religion and politics are most often approached currently.  It annoys me how our studies often create a false hiatus between the religion of the Roman republic/Augustan principate and the imperial period, especially in relation to the religious elements of Roman festivals.  There seems to be this prevailing idea that because of the political nature of Roman public entertainment there cannot be a religious element to it based on faith.  Surely our current political environment should open our eyes to how this is not such an alien concept.

But the range of human faith was made more apparent to me recently as I was preparing a workshop on ancient curse tablets (defixiones).  As a part of the workshop I had participants make their own curse tablet to get a first-hand feel for this act of faith from the ancient world.  I couldn't allow participants to inscribe lead owing to occupational health and safety regulations, but I did use lead personally at home in order to show participants what these tablets might have looked like new, and how easy it was to prepare them. 

Inscribed Lead Curse Tablet


As an agnostic with pagan religious tendencies, the thought struck me as I engraved my lead tablet "What if I were to succeed in cursing someone by doing this?"  I had no real faith or belief, but the question was still there in the back of my mind.  In the end, I did not actually fold and nail an inscribed lead tablet; and neither did I deposit it.  I had made it for illustrative purposes, not religious purposes.  I also did not perform any ritual while inscribing the lead as suggested by the Greek Magical Papyri.

At my first workshop, a participant refused to write a curse because he did not think it was a good thing to do.  Instead he wrote a blessing.  This person identifies himself as an atheist.  In my second workshop, another participant who identifies as an atheist stopped and said "I know this is silly, but what if I were to actually curse someone by doing this?"  I reassured him that I did not think this was a silly question. 

Despite the fact that these participants were using an aluminium foil laminate instead of lead, and despite not ritually depositing the tablet, and despite not self-identifying as religious, two people in separate groups questioned whether or not this ritual act might influence our world.  The question, that I too had pondered. 

We live in a world where we question the appropriate role of faith in society as a whole, but like the Roman world (and other historical societies), faith continues to influence us.  While I am sure that there are atheists who would scoff at questioning whether the act of inscribing metal might as affect the world, faith can still wriggle its way into the minds of some.  Is it any surprise then that it will influence those who are open about their religiosity and faith?  And why on earth do scholars secularise the religious ritual elements of public entertainment during the Roman imperial period?

Despite what we might wish, human beings as a whole are not rational, and as a direct result our societies aren't rational either.  I'd like to say that I have faith that this might change - but that would be a little too facetious.

If you would like to know more about ancient curse tablets, you can find a summation of my research on academia.org.  As for how easy it is to work with lead so long as you don't mind risking exposure to a potentially dangerous heavy metal, please view these two clips:
video

video

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Memory Lane - the influence of personal experience and societal change.

As many members of The University of Queensland's Classics and Ancient History Society have seen, I have been spending a lot of time digging through old notes and memories to post interesting ancient facts on their Facebook page to amuse people during the exam period. My personal trip down memory lane stirred up the memory of a humorous item which had been photocopied from the Wall Street Journal involving classicists in the United States, the Unabomber and the FBI.

This single photocopied page was passed around staff and students (postgrad and undergrad) within the then Classics and Ancient History Department, chortled over and discussed. In a discipline that always felt under attack, we were both happy to see classics mentioned in a business journal, but then felt the dismay that we as a community were being laughed at by people in the business world. I decided to find that long lost article the other day. I couldn't remember what year it was published, what it was entitled, or even the names of the classicists involved. All I could remember was some classics academic said they had called the FBI to suggest that another classicist was the terrorist known as the "Unabomber". For readers who don't know what I'm referring to, here's the Wikipedia article. I knew it predated September 11, because as a community we still felt it was okay to laugh at the concept of accusing an innocent party of being a terrorist.

A little online research (i.e. typing Unabomber, classics, FBI, and Wall Street Journal into Google) didn't get me to the article I had read so many years before; instead Google books had thrown open to me a page from Victor Davis Hanson, John Heath and Bruce S. Thornton's Bonfire of the Humanities: Rescuing the Classics in an Impoverished Age, 2001 (but with a 2014 eBook edition).  You can read the Bryn Mawr Classical Review article here.  It was a follow up to their highly contentious Who Killed Homer, the book which sparked much of this fight which was published in 1998. From here I got the date 1999 and I found through the Library databases the text to that Wall Street Journal article: J. Bottom, "Taste -- It's War! --- You thought the Balkans were bad; Look at these classics professors," Wall Street Journal, Eastern Edition, 28 May, 1999, p. W 11. I'd love to post the entirety of the text, but unfortunately it is illegal. So I reread the article, now as someone who has completed her PhD, attended a number of conferences in various countries, and gotten into an occasional academic stoush, rather than the undergrad in her last year of her BA.

Fifteen years made a great deal of a difference to my reaction to this story. My first reaction was one of deep discomfort and embarrassment. The idea that classicists were being viewed by the wider audience in this way made me squirm. Were we all seen to be like this to readers of the a Wall Street Journal? Were the opportunities of classics graduates being adversely affected by this article? I certainly hope not. This is one example of the classicist community, not a reflection of the whole. Whereas before I laughed myself silly and drew further attention to this article among my peers, I am writing this now with my conscience divided between "This is an interesting facet in the history of classicism" and "Don't draw further attention to this embarrassing facet of the history of classicism!" The historian in me is winning this argument. My reaction to this article is also tinged by having met Judith Hallett (I think!). I have a vague memory of meeting this academic who claimed to have called the FBI, and my immediate reaction was in recognising her name was "She didn't seem that nasty." From my personal 5-10 minutes of interaction she seemed nice and supportive of young, up-and-coming academics.

The article then went on to cite segments of the email discussion, referred to various swipes the combatants had taken at each other in various articles, and book reviews. I'm sure if Bonfire of the Humanities had been published at the time of this article, it's closing chapter which was devoted to the analysis of this claim to have called the FBI, would have been cited. The closing paragraph still makes me feel anger that these people had brought my discipline of classics and ancient history into such disrepute, and there was no body like cricket's ICC to publicly rebuke them:
It's wrong for him to write about her book, you see, because she once called the FBI and compared him to a multiple murderer. There. That's the way for scholars to answer a brutal review of their latest book. That's the way to defend, once and for all, the high-minded, classical profession of Greek and Latin.
Apart from these reactions, what I noticed more about this was the nature of communication at the time. The claim that Hallett had called the FBI was posted on an email forum. This term meant nothing to me in 1999. I had a University issued email address which I never checked at the time. I didn't own a computer. The computers made available by the student union were limited in number, and old tubes which showed green text on a black screen (think the opening credits to The Matrix). We still enrolled in classes by filling out paperwork, literally. The idea of communicating as a member of a group on a computer was completely foreign to me. We live now in a society saturated in social media where we share articles online, but at this time it was a photocopy left on a table in a tea room where staff and students socialised on a daily basis. Although I post frequently online within the UQ classics student's community, I miss the days where socialising was more interpersonal than Internet.

The article even included the link where all these emails were publicly available so all its readers could go and laugh at the classicists, like digitally throwing peanuts at monkeys at the zoo. I checked to see if it's still available. It doesn't appear to be, at least not on that link. These kinds of lists still exist in classics community, and occasionally something is discussed which incites the ire of the group, but I know of no other case quite like this one. I think that today we are more aware of the impact of what we place online; we know that everything can be seen and judged. The circumstances surrounding publication of the emails of Prof. Barry Spurr was a timely reminder that even what we write in emails requires circumspection. And in this post September 11 world, I think that everyone needs to consider the real world consequences of suggesting someone is a terrorist.

I had fun looking at my old notes to find interesting facts. I rechecked my sources, looking at them once again with a decade's more research experience. But in looking back on that article I realised how much my personal experiences had changed my response to it, how much society had changed since its publication, and how much technology had changed the way we communicate. When looking at historical material from any age, even recently published history books, I think we should also consider how these elements might have influenced an author's body of work throughout their life. Despite what people in business, or any other community for that matter, might think, we do not study, write or argue in a vacuum.
One of my favourite posts from the series of facts.  You can't avoid classics even in your maths classes.

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Translations Matter! As Do Sources!

In what is a first I am writing two blog posts in two days.
I have spent a considerable amount of time over the last couple of days trying to point out errors in a news story about gladiator diets in Ephesus.
An Austrian university wrote a media release about the research conducted by their anthropologists about the evidence for gladiator diets. They wrote it in their native language, German.
"In einer Studie des Departments für Gerichtsmedizin der MedUni Wien in Kooperation mit der Abteilung für Anthropologie des Instituts für Rechtsmedizin der Uni Bern wurden Knochen eines im Jahr 1993 gefundenen Gladiatoren friedhofs aus dem 2./3. Jahrhundert nach Christus im damals römischen Ephesos (heutige Türkei) untersucht. Ephesos war damals die Hauptstadt der römischen Provinz Asia und hatte über 200.000 Einwohner."
Yes, that is German, but I don't expect you to be able to read all of it! Just focus on the bold text! For the betterment of your understanding in case you don't know in German "vor Christus" or "v. Chr" means "BC" or "BCE", while "nach Christus" or "n. Chr" means "AD" or "CE". My German is rather shoddy, but it helps to know how to figure out dates.
The English translation of the media release has a vital error:
"In a study by the Department of Forensic Medicine at the MedUni Vienna in cooperation with the Department of Anthropology at the Institute of Forensic Medicine at the University of Bern, bones were examined from a gladiator cemetery uncovered in 1993 which dates back to the 2nd or 3rd century BC in the then Roman city of Ephesos (now in modern-day Turkey). At the time, Ephesos was the capital of the Roman province of Asia and had over 200,000 inhabitants."
They state BC instead of AD. At the bottom of the page they include the link to the article which
correctly sites the date:
Full bibliographic information
Service: PLOS ONE
Stable Isotope and trace element studies on gladiators and contemporary Romans from Ephesus
(Turkey, 2nd and 3rd ct. AD) - Implications for differences in diet
Sandra Lösch, Negahnaz Moghaddam, Karl Grossschmidt, Daniele U. Risser and Fabian Kanz
This article can be found here: http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi
%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0110489
Unfortunately, two different online archaeological news providers have written their articles from
the erroneous English media release:
  • Heritage Daily who cite the English media release at the bottom; and 
  • Phys.org who continue the BC error yet cite the PLOS ONE article.
In addition to this error being repeated by Phys.org and Heritage Daily, these online articles are being shared by people (including academics with considerable online followings) which in turn makes many people think that there were gladiators fighting for the fun of the crowd in Ephesus centuries earlier than they were.

The moral of the story is think critically! If something appears online that looks credible but doesn't fit with your current understanding, question it. Sure the original media release was German, but acquiring the ability to recognise dates in foreign languages can be a huge step.
And remember, just because everyone is reporting the same thing does not make them correct; they might just be reading from the same media release. The same thing can be said for ancient sources: they might just be using the same source.


Monday, 20 October 2014

Gough Whitlam: the man who dreamed of becoming a classics professor andwound up the Prime Minister

Overnight a legend of Australian politics passed away, former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam. While Australians are currently considering the impact this man had on Australian society, I would like to point out a bit about his background.
When Gough Whitlam started his tertiary education at the University of Sydney in 1935, he did so having won the Canberra Scholarship 'to read for a Classics Degree at the University of Sydney.' This was a scholarship he had won in 1932 upon obtaining his "Leaving Certificate" (the equivalent to finishing grade 12) at the age of 16. His father thought that this was far too young an age to consider university, so he spent the next two years repeating his studies at Canberra Grammar. While he had studied Latin before, his great-uncle advised his parents that he ought to study Classical Greek as well.
As a result, in addition to repeating his English, Latin, French, and history (modern and ancient), he took Greek. He also spent Saturday mornings with other local senior school students on the veranda of Canberra University College Professor Leslie Holdsworth Allen who provided free tuition in Latin and Greek.
When he left school in 1934, he was third in the entire state of New South Wales in Latin, and finally took up his scholarship and dreamed of becoming a classics professor.
As an 18 year old first year Arts student, he studied Latin, Greek, English and Psychology, with declared majors in Greek and Latin. Unfortunately, according to his biographer, Jenny Hocking, he found most of his lecturers 'uninspiring', and this was reflected in his results. The exception appears to have been in the final year of his classics studies in 1937 when the new Greek professor arrived, a 25 year old Enoch Powell, who would later become a conservative politician in the United Kingdom parliament. Whitlam described his new teacher as a 'textual maniac' in describing his tightly structured Greek translations. That year Whitlam completed his Arts degree with with second class honours, and his dream of becoming a classics professor was over. According to Hocking, Whitlam had lost his passion for classics by this time and 'his classical studies which had begun with such high expectations' had 'ground to a grudging completion...'
While Whitlam went on to study law, he never lost his love for the classics.
Whitlam spent more than fifty years of his life collecting various translations of classical works, old and new. Various volumes of such texts can be seen in the shelves which formed a background to interviews when he was seeking to lead Labor to victory rather than the black leather bound books which often feature in the photographs and films of politicians who have law degrees. Those kinds of photographs came later. Unfortunately I was unable to find such a picture to include here, but I think it can be seen in the ABC's Whitlam: the Power and the Passion. Indeed, Whitlam particularly loved Ovid and said of the poet: 'Ovid is as influential a poet as there has been in literature' and 'all the great stories are in Ovid.'
Indeed, people still refer to the influence of Whitlam's classical education on his political career.  In the first of the occasional papers of "The Whitlam Legacy" ( Vol. I, October 2011 p. 7), Mark Hutchinson wrote 'Whitlam's classical education and "unswerving belief in the power of the intellect in general and his intellect in particular" led to "a diligent pursuit of good policy based on careful research and sound values."'
So please remember that while people today discuss this man and the influence that he has had on modern Australia, all of us who share a love for the classics had this in common with him. And that even if we do not become classics professors, there is much good we can do for society if we hold on to the classical elements of our education, careful research and sound values.
Dis Manibus Gough Whitlam, 1916-2014.



Wednesday, 8 October 2014

2014 Classics and Ancient History vs Medieval and Early Modern Society Inaugural Comedy Debate

Last evening I participated in debate on behalf of The University of Queensland's Classics and Ancient History Society against another society, the Medieval and Early Modern Society. The topic was "Who threw better parties, Roman emperors or Medieval and early modern European rulers?" Unfortunately, my team lost (if it had been judged acclamation instead if judges we might have had them), but all speakers entertained our audience. My talk was accompanied by a written disclaimer:  "If you are sensitive to certain ideas, you might find Yvette's speech offensive. It is meant to be funny.  lighten up!"
So please read this as a comic piece. I am not trying to be offensive. It was written to make people laugh and deride the celebratory efforts of European kings.

Please excuse the mixed font, Blogger is having fun driving me nuts!

While my colleagues here have provided examples of how awesome the parties held by Roman emperors were, I would like to discuss the cause of this. 
And it’s obvious – Religion! 
It isn’t the fault of European kings that their parties sucked – they were working under a handicap – imposed by God. 
Christianity – the biggest creator of wowsers in history. 
When I first thought about this, I was going to blame the Pope – Pontifex Maximus. All these kings who weren’t the head of religion like Roman emperors were. Let’s face it, it is damn difficult to accuse someone who holds the highest priesthood in the empire of throwing a party so debauched that the gods disapproved.  You might say it well after that emperor died, but at that moment, you shut up!  
Christian rulers weren’t in charge of religion until much later.  How can you throw a great party when some usually old party-pooper with red shoes and a gaudy ring and hat is sitting on a throne in Rome or Avignon is judging you, and threatening you with a ban from sitting in a church every Sunday participating in a cannibalistic ritual involving cheap wine and a stale biscuit? 
So I was thinking this line of old farts were responsible until Ithought that European kings can buy decent wine and get fresh biscuits. I was thinking of three kitchens devoted to confectionary in Hampton Court Palace and Henry VIII. 
Yes, he got into a fight over women, and authority, and women, and tithes, and women – did I mention the women? - with the Pope and told him to shove it.  Yet despite his kitchens and his women, he still didn’t have great parties.  
Why? 
Because God is a wowser! 
And the Christian God has spoilt everyone’s parties. The Saxons had great parties. You can tell by Sutton Hoo.  Has anyone here partied so hard at a funeral that at the end you buried a boat? No.  Why?  GOD. 
Sure you see some nice burials in churches, but no one got that drunk. Why? Because it’s a church. You can’t party in a church. Why do you think you don’t hold wedding receptions in churches? 
Consider Saxon funerals and realise all non-Christian parties were awesome. And the only decent Medieval parties were held by a miniscule number of pagans.  
Now let’s look at Roman religion. 
There were no crappy wine, stale biscuits or ick factor.  I don’t know about you, but if I was told I was about to consume a god, I’d expect it to taste better. 
In Rome, when you attended a ritual sacrifice, it’s a BBQ out the front of the temple as often as not.  If you were really lucky it was a mixed grill of beef, lamb and pork, with wine and honey cakes.  And the holidays! While the kings of Europe were enjoying a day on their knees, in prayer, not fun, Rome’s emperors invited the whole city to party at the races.  
Consider Melbourne on Melbourne Cup Day – almost 100 days a year! That’s an awesome party! 
And let’s consider the gods themselves. For example – Liber Pater – Father Freedom.  Sure the Christian god allows a sip a week, Liber Pater says sure – get smashed! 
And Jupiter – while the Christian god managed to knock up one woman, once, Jupiter was tapping whatever he could lay abovine penis or golden shower on. Jupiter isn’t going to judge you for a great party – he wants an invite! Rome’s emperors partied in their homes, in front of temples, in the theatres, the Colosseum, the race track. They partied in the streets and brought out the statues of gods to party with them. They partied in trees and caves, they’d form little religious groups and party in the forest. 
Kings weren’t that lucky. For all of Henry VIII’s defiance, he still couldn’t chow down on BBQ beef on Fridays in front of a church. 
How can you organise a great party “When thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife”? 
It was at a party where Octavian, later first Roman emperor, picked up Livia who was someone else’s wife and pregnant at the time. It was this relation which was the rock on the Julio-Claudian dynasty was built, which was the foundation for the success of the Imperial Roman system, which allowed the best, most debauched, fun, awesome, and most of all GUILTLESS parties.   
You bet Roman Emperors threw better parties – the entire system was founded on them. 
Whereas European kings based their leadership on the power allowed them by a wowser God. 


Friday, 22 August 2014

The Message of Violence, Now as in the Past

Yesterday evening I read an opinion piece by Jeff Sparrow relating to the murder of photo-journalist James Foley by a member of Islamic State forces.
He wrote:
"Traditionally, authoritarian political parties or regimes concealed their crimes, on the (not unreasonable) basis that footage of, say, mass executions would undermine support.  The Islamic State works to a different plan.  Its attrocities - beheadings, crucifixions, mass shootings - are purposefully spectacular, staged precisely so they circulate."
I agree with Sparrow's piece, but as a Roman historian, my mind ran in another direction when I read "crucifixion".  When it comes to spectacular, staged deaths which were meant to circulate, there is nothing new, just the media platform via which circulation occurs.  I immediately thought of the Spartacan slave revolt from 73-71 BC.  The historical sources describe miles of crucified rebellious slaves along the Via Appia.  
"So great was the slaughter that it was impossible to count them.  The Roman loss was about 1000.  The body of Spartacus was not found.  A large number of his men fled from the battle-field to the mountains and Crassus followed them thither.  They divided themselves in four parts, and continued to fight until they all perished except 6000, who were captured and crucified along the whole road from Capua to Rome."  Appian, Civil Wars 1.14.120.
The purpose of such an act was for it to be noticed and spoken about.  According to Appian, Spartacus knew that this was the fate of his slave army if they failed to defeat the Roman forces.  For this reason, he too crucified someone prior to this last battle:
"He [Spartacus] crucified a Roman prisoner in the space between the two armies to show his men what fate awaited them if they did not conquer."  Appian Civil Wars 1.14.119.
While we only have the historical record of these events, it is an illustration of how these events circulated in antiquity.  These acts were discussed, written and spoken of, and remembered.  While we only have the historical sources written by men who accepted the slave system, and no voice for the slaves affected by it (especially in the case of rural slaves), like the killing a James Foley, these crucifixions had a set audience, in this case Italy's rural slaves.  Many slaves working on estates along the Via Appia would have watched, been outraged, and scared - and that was the whole reason why it was done.
For this reason I think Sparrow has missed another reason for the release of this horrible video - to scare people, especially journalists.  The Syria Campaign has pointed out the important work of journalists like Foley:  ensuring the outside world knew the story of the victims of the violence in Syria.  The death of James Foley is a warning to all other journalists: don't come, just as the message along the Via Appia was don't revolt.  The Islamic State might be wanting to send that message to locals too.
In the modern world, like the ancient world, violence always sends a message, regardless of the medium by which it is, or was, spread.


Saturday, 10 May 2014

How much was Roman money worth, and the problem of inflation.

When I first tutored introductory Roman history, a student asked me how much was money in Rome worth.
My response was, can I get back to you next week?
I then spent some frantic days trying to find the answer.  I found I had a huge problem, and its name was inflation.  All the studies were old and either from England or the United States, published just after WWII which was completely useless for an Australian class in 2002.  
So I put my thinking cap on and tried to conceive a way to answer this question removing the issues of inflation and different currencies.  The answer struck me at my favourite bakery - bread.
This topic recently arose in a discussion the other day and I promised to find my calculation and share the results.  Surprisingly, the page on which I had figured this out was exactly where I thought it was, but I hadn't written any of the references.  This worked out well, because I found some errors when I re-examined my calculations and sought out references.
Following the fire of Rome in AD 64, wheat was being sold in Rome for 3 sesterces per modius according to Tacitus Annals XV.39.  According to Tenney Frank's  An Economic History of Rome p. 403, this was a low price generated to deal with the tragedy.  According to Bradley Hudson McLean An Introduction to Greek Epigraphy of the Hellenistic and Roman Periods from Alexander the Great down to the Reign of Constantine (323 B.C. - A.D. 337) p. 375 this was the standard price in 150 B.C., so this gives an idea of how this price fits into Roman prices historically.
Most of the wheat for sale in Rome and Italy in this period was from Egypt, so my calculations are based on Pliny the Elder's description of how much bread could be made out of wheat from Egypt.  Depending on where the within Egypt the wheat came from one modius of wheat (8.62 litres) could be milled and prepared to yield 25-26 Roman pounds of bread, according to Pliny Natural History 18.12.68.  
One Roman pound (libra or pondus) weighs 327.45 grams according to the Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece and Rome.
So, if 1 modius of wheat cost 3 sesterces, it cost 12 asses, an as being the smallest Roman bronze coin.  For the sake of my calculation I used the 26 pounds of bread which Pliny suggested could be made from the wheat from around Thebes in Upper Egypt.  
26 Roman pounds x 327.45 grams = 8 kilos 513.7 grams of bread.
8513.7 grams of bread divided by the 12 asses its wheat cost = 709.475 grams/as.
Therefore, following the fire of Rome in A.D. 64, the smallest valued coin in Rome could purchase enough wheat to bake a little over 700 grams of bread, the standard loaf size sold in Australia.
This price was an emergency reduction in price, and thus probably didn't last long, especially once civil war broke out following Nero's death in A.D. 68.
To place this into context, Tenney Frank suggests a soldier's pay was 225 denarii annually or 10 asses a day around this time.  The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece and Rome suggests that a laborer's daily was was 4 sesterces (or 16 asses) a day.  The disparity between the two might be the result of the provision of meals to soldiers.  
You should also remember that this was not the cost of bread, but the cost of wheat from which to make bread.  Other ingredients and the baker would have increased the price.

Bakery fresco from Naples Museum

Monday, 10 February 2014

Valentine's Day, Lupercalia, Carnivale and Spring.

When did the first fortnight of February become the Valentine season?  My news feed on Facebook has been so full of references that I kept thinking I'd lost track of a sizable chunk of time.  I'm not a fan of Valentine's Day; it's a Hallmark marketing holiday masquerading as an historical religious holy day.
Out of curiosity I decided to check into the nature and history of Saint Valentine and found myself on the Catholic Education Resource Centre website where I read that there were three different martyrologies of Valentine; two in Italy and another in North Africa, and all sharing the feast day of the 14th of February.  Both of the Italian Valentines were martyred during the reign of Claudius II, and the Roman Valentine met his end (beaten and then decapitated) on the 14th of February 270 A.D.  He was buried on the Flaminian Way, and then during the papacy of Julius I (333-356 A.D.) a basilica was built on his burial site (attested to by archaeological digs in the 16th and 19th centuries).  
So what exactly does he have to do with romantic love, cardboard hearts and overpriced flowers?
According to the Catholic Church, nothing.
The earliest references connecting romance and February 14 relate to the coming of spring.  In his Parliament of Fowls, the earliest reference to romance and Valentine, Chaucer records a tradition that birds began to pair on Saint Valentine's Day.  This was a romantic style of love, as this pairing is described as taking place in the Garden of Love.  This poem is interesting in that it references the Dream of Scipio and contains many pagan Roman references.  
In the Roman period, the day after Saint Valentine's Day, the Ides of February, was the date of the festival of Lupercalia.  As an undergraduate I designed a poster for a Lupercalia party.  It featured goats, whips, nudity and fertility during a time of year surrounded by cupids, hearts and roses.  Its use was not approved.  Unlike sending flowers and cards, the Lupercalia started with young Roman noblemen, Luperci, who sacrificed goats, dressed themselves only in a loincloth made from the skin of the slaughtered goat, fashioned a whip from goat skin they weren't wearing, and then ran around the centre of Rome (around the Palatine Hill, up the Via Sacra and through the Forum) laughing and whipping women; a ritual which in today's universities would sound like some kind of Satanic college fraternity hazing ritual.  
Rather than humiliation, the purpose of this near-nude run was to increase fertility among the women who were struck by the whips and the purify the city.
There has been a great deal of research devoted to the Lupercalia over the years, and much of it has left me with more questions than answers and confused, so I was pleasantly surprised to come across John North's and Neil McLynn's studies in The Journal of Roman Studies 2008.  Their papers have summed what we can and can't say relating to the festival during the Republican and late antique Christian periods.  These papers are worth reading if you are interested in more detail.  North's study focuses on the Lupercalia of 44 B.C. during which Mark Antony, who was a Lupercus, offered a crown to Julius Caesar, while McLynn's focuses on the open letter written by Pope Gelasius (492-6 A.D.) against the Roman nobleman, Andromachus, who was sponsoring the Lupercalia in the late 5th century.  
North refers to the Lupercalia as a carnival, and as having a Carnival-like atmosphere owing to its joyous public celebration accompanied by laughter.  One part of his study focused on the mythical aetiology of the festival - a race between the founders of the city of Rome, Romulus and Remus who were suckled by the She-Wolf at the Lupercal, to retrieve stolen cattle.  This indicates that in addition to being a fertility rite and a ritual cleansing of the city, the Lupercalia also honoured the founders of the city.  The race was won by Remus, the twin who would later be killed by his brother for crossing the sacred boundary of Rome without permission, which according to North reflects the reversal of social order in the Lupercalia, though it is not as dramatic as the reversal illustrated during the Saturnalia.
Representation of the Lupercal dating to the reign of Trajan or Hadrian.  Palazzo Massimo Della Terme.
Found at Ostia Antica.    From Wikipedia.
McLynn does not draw a strong comparison between the Lupercalia and Carnivale, but his description of the later Lupercalia drew my attention to its correspondence in the calendar to Lent, and therefore to Carnivale and Mardi Gras.  According to McLynn, in 487 A.D. the 15th of February fell on the Sunday which marked the beginning of Lent.  This meant that the Lupercalia was not celebrated that year, which North believes helps to explain Gelasius' statement that there had been a cessation in the celebration of the festival.  Gelasius also wrote that the Lupercalia was no longer run by members of Rome's elite families, but by actors who were paid by them instead.  Gelasius (and McLynn's study of his work) describes a professional street parade performed by actors, and most likely actresses, who are described as singing songs composed for the purpose of publicising the city's wrong-doers as a form of public spectacle and purification.  There was no sacrifice of goats before hand as pagan sacrifices had been banned by the emperor Theodosius I in 381 A.D. (Theodosian Code 16.10.7); all participants were members of the theatrical community and as such were not allowed to participate in Christianity's ritual of sacrament (if they were given the sacrament on their deathbed and then recovered it was illegal for them to return to the stage according to Theodosian Code 15.7.1); and rather than being a run, it was a piece of street theatre or pageantry with song (and perhaps music - I have found no evidence for this but music was a common part of Roman festivals in the past and continued to be a part of theatre performances in this period).  
To me, that sounds an awful lot like Mardi Gras and Carnivale.
I haven't been able to find any evidence to illustrate continuity from the late antique Lupercalia to the later Italian Carnivale, but that is as much evidence as there is illustrating some connection between romance and the life of Saint Valentine.  I guess that when we strip away all the religious connotations, be they Christian or Roman, Lupercalia, Carnivale, Mardi Gras and the Feast of Saint Valentine are all celebrations of the coming of Spring. 
Interestingly, the reverend who wrote the article I read discussing the relationship between romantic love and Saint Valentine suggested that the spiritual connection between the two relates to people pledging their love and fidelity, relating this to the martyrdom of Valentine and to John 15:12-13 "This is my commandment: love one another as I have loved you.  There is no greater love than this: to lay down one's life for one's friends."  
A cynic might interpret this as "Marriage=Martyrdom and Death", but I haven't found a Hallmark card featuring that inscription yet.  Or goats, whips and nudity, come to think of it.