Michael Hamar

Was Rome Felled by Gays or Christianity?

Filed By Michael Hamar | May 10, 2011 1:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Fundie Watch, Politics
Tags: anti-gay bigotry, Christian beliefs, GOP, Greece, Roman Empire, The Family Foundation

One of the often repeated mantras of many Christianists, including loons at Focus on the Family and Family roman-empire.jpgResearch Council among others (not to mention their political whores in the GOP), is that the acceptance of homosexuality caused the fall of the Roman Empire. Some would also extend this allegation Ancient Greece as well.

Never mind the fact that Ancient Greece reached the pinnacle of its power under Alexander the Great, who had a documented male lover. Lies and ignorance are sadly increasingly synonymous with Christianists and more and more Republicans.

For me, when someone makes this unfounded statement, it is prima facie proof of their ignorance of accurate history and, moreover, their utter unfitness to hold any elected office. They are simply too ignorant and stupid.

The ultimate irony is that, if anything, contributed to the fall of the western Roman Empire it was the rise of Christianity, not an acceptance of homosexuality or other types of sexual license for that matter.

Indeed, the curriculum in one history course at Utah State University - not exactly what one would call an effete liberal university - has this to say about sexual morality and the fall of Rome:

Rome did not fall because of the distractions pursuant to sexual indulgence. Given the universality of Christianity which the Romans had adopted as their exclusive religion by then, the conduct of those living in the fifth century after Christ was relatively sober. Indeed, if the data point to any venereal villains across the great expanse of Roman history, it is the Julio-Claudians who oversaw the height of Roman power in the first century CE and were truly perpetrators of immorality at large. So, to make an argument relating sexual behavior to Rome's "fall"--and to judge it fairly from the historical evidence--involves the ludicrous conclusion that the erotic felonies of a Caligula or Nero, in fact, sustained Rome's triumph, instead of corroding it at its core. That suggests that, to prevent the collapse of their society, the Romans should have kept the orgies up, so to speak, which is patently ridiculous. Simply put, sex -- reproduction maybe, but not sex!-- had little or nothing to do with the troubles that brought the Romans to their collective knees in later antiquity.

A column in the Chicago Sun-Times looked at this issue last December, in fact, after Illinois Rep. Ronald Stephens on the Illinois House floor blamed "open homosexuality" for the fall of Rome. True to form, Stephens is a Republican who was likely parroting some bullshit provided to him by some Christianist activist (it definitely sounds like the lies put out routinely by The Family Foundation here in Virginia). Here are highlights from the Sun-Times column that took Rep. Stephens to task:

"If you look at the sociological history of societies that have failed," said Stephens (R-Greenville), "what are some of the commonalities - One of those is that open homosexuality becomes accepted." A common idea: Mighty Rome toppled because it allowed those light in the togas to prance unchallenged through the Forum. We're on our way to ruin, too, not because of ascendant China or a collapse of political discourse, but because we allow gays and lesbians to live their lives with only moderate harassment.

That's funny. Not ha-ha funny, but ironic funny, and demands we shine a light down this well of ignorance. First, the Roman Empire -- even lopping off the first 700 years, from Rome's founding to Julius Caesar -- lasted 500 years. We should only fall so quickly.

If tolerance didn't topple Rome, what did - Let us consult Edward Gibbon, whose classic The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire isn't read in high schools, at least not Downstate, apparently, the way it once was. Gibbon puts the blame -- and this really is too delicious -- not on homosexuality, but on Christianity,which he says made the Roman population more worried about their place in heaven than about barbarians at the gate. "I have described the triumph of barbarism and religion," Gibbon concludes, famously, in his epigram.

To top it off, the Huns, unlike Rome's Christian emperors, were not on the anti-gay bandwagon, but practiced a warrior homosexuality, according to some scholars (evidence is fragmentary; it isn't as if some Vandal penned a Teutonic Tales in the City). To fault Ancient Rome for coddling gays is like blaming the Nazis for bad civic art.

The Sun-Times column rightfully makes fun of Rep. Stephens and his Neanderthal constituents who elected him to office. And it does speak the truth as to Gibbons' conclusions, which are elaborated upon in a piece written by the late Arnaldo Momigliano, an Italian historian who taught at Oxford, the University of Chicago, and University College in London. for many years. The piece was published in the Oxford Press nearly 50 years ago, so the thesis is not something new (neither are Gibbons' conclusions). Here are some highlights:

[T]here is a direct relation between the triumph of Christianity and the decline of the Roman empire. But, of course, it will not be a simple return to Gibbon. What Gibbon saw as a merely destructive power must be understood on its own terms of Civitas dei - a new comonwealth of men for men.

Christianity produced a new style of life, created new loyalties, gave people new ambitions and new satisfactions. So far nobody has written a realistic evaluation of the impact of Christianity on the structure of pagan society. I shall not attempt such a task here. I shall confine myself to a few elementary remarks on the impact of Christianity on political life between the fourth and the sixth centuries A.D. We all know the basic facts.

The fact that the aristocracy played a role of increasing importance in the affairs of the Church is only one aspect of what is perhaps the central feature of the fourth century: the emergence of the Church as an organization completing with the State itself and becoming attractive to educated and influential persons.

The State, though trying to regiment everything, was not able to prevent or suppress the competition of the Church. A man could in fact escape from the authority of the State if he embraced the Church. If he liked power he would soon discover that there was more power to be found in the Church than in the State.

Gibbon was simplifying a very complicated issue when he insinuated that Christianity was responsible for the fall of the empire, But he perceived that the church attracted many men who in the past would have become excellent generals, governors of provinces, advisers to the emperors.

Moreover, the Church made ordinary people proud, not of their old political institutions, but of their new churches, monasteries, and ecclesiastical charities. Money which would have gone to the building of a theatre or of an aqueduct now went to the building of churches and monasteries. The social equilibrium changed - to the advantage of the spiritual and physical conditions of monks and priests, but to the disadvantage of the ancient institutions of the empire.

When Alaric captured Rome in 410 many people asked themselves whether the ruin of Rome was not the sign that Christianity was bad for the empire.
The Christian answer to these doubts prevailed.

[T]he conclusion remains that while the political organization of the empire became increasingly rigid, unimaginative, and unsuccessful, the Church was mobile and resilient and provided space for those whom the State was unable to absorb. The bishops were the centres of large voluntary organizations. They founded and controlled charitable institutions. They defended their flocks against the state officials. When the military situation of the empire grew worse, they often organized armed resistance against the barbarians. It seems to me impossible to deny that the prosperity of the Church was both a consequence and a cause of the decline of the state.

People escaped from the state into the Church and weakened that state by giving their best to the Church. This is a situation which in its turn requires analysis and explanation. But its primary importance cannot e overlooked. The best men were working for the Church, not for the state.... Monasticism is the most obvious example of the way in which Christianity built something of its own which undermined the military and political structure of the Roman empire....

in the West, after having contributed to the weakening of the empire, the Church inclined to accept collaboration with the barbarians and even replacement of the Roman authorities by barbarian leaders. In the East (with the partial exception of Alexandria) the Church appreciated the military strength of the Roman state and the loyalties it commanded.

A essay written a while back by the late Louis Crompton which can be found here reached a similar conclusion. Compton's essay stresses that Rome had been ruled by Christian emperors for over one hundred years before the fall of the western empire in 476 A.D.

Cross posted on my personal blog; img via wikipedia

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There was also a massive recession in the third century combined with a long ongoing currency devaluation, which finally caused a hyperinflation. Then the old civil wars flared up, with several large regions breaking away for many years. At the same time the "barbarians at the gate" successfully attacked weakly defended borders. All this led to a severe weakening of the internal trade that the empire depended on.
Add the rise of Christianity to that and a lot of shit came together that changed the face of roman society.

It's also interesting to note that in Rome it were the Greeks who were considered to have lose morals and be proponents of same-sex love. Not that it didn't go on in Rome, but it wasn't comparable today either. They had different taboos about gay sex - mostly about who took the active as opposed to the passive role.

using "whore" as a pejorative is totally gay.

which is just to say that the ubiquitous degradation of sex workers in culture, especially when it's so far from the topic at hand, and we're called to mind only as the basis for comparison to put down someone truly evil (those GOP 'whores' who criminalize sex workers, and punish us by withholding necessary services), is tiring, offputting and inexcusable.

i don't care who brought down the roman empire -- imperialism ought to be brought down -- but i know who was at stonewall.

Time to drag up my favorite link...
Things that caused the fall of the Roman Empire

The history teacher in me feels compelled to note that the Roman Empire didn't fall in 476 but rather existed quite comfortably for centuries, headquartered in Constantinople--a change which occurred, btw, long before the Goths reached the gates of Rome or the last Western emperor died without heirs. (Gibbon ignored Byzantium almost completely--he felt women had too much power there and so it didn't count. Or maybe it just killed his thesis, so he pretended it didn't count.)

But it's ludicrous to blame either its dissolution in the West or its survival in the East on sex.

True, but that was a Roman Empire only as much as the German Holy Roman Empire had anything to with Rome or its traditions and culture.

You are correct - the eastern half of the Empire lasted another thousand years. I focused on the western portion of the Empire because that's what the wingnuts seem to focus upon.

Of course, the ultimate irony is that ostensibly Christian emperors had ruled in the west por roughly a century before the western Empire "fell."

Terrence Lockyer | May 10, 2011 2:49 PM

Unfortunately, even some professors of history seem willing and able to place ideology over evidence and reason on this topic: one recent example is the deputy head of the Italian National Research Council, Roberto de Mattei, about whose claims (and their origins) I wrote a brief note at http://tlockyer.posterous.com/carthage-the-gay-and-the-virtuous-vandals

BTW, the idea that ancient Greek and Roman sexual relationships were always governed by a rigid typology of penetrator and penetrated is found widely in modern texts and discussions; but it's at best only a partially true generalization (like saying that in modern Euro-American culture non-commercial sexual relationships are based on ideas of love and mutual attraction), and there are many complicating factors and counter-examples in art, literature, and elsewhere: indeed, the very fact that both Akhilleus and Patroklos and Alexander and Hephaistion were widely seen as same-sex couples suggests that these strict typologies did not necessarily apply to actual relationships and perceptions.

Christianity didn't exist for the first 700 years of Rome, gay love did. For the first 300 years of Christianity, it was outlawed and suppressed, and gay love was legal. In 315 AD Christianity reared it's head and became not only legal, but the state religion of Rome. And gay love was outlawed for the first time. Within 100 years, by 415, the Western Empire was gone. 'Twas Christianity which slayed the Empire, after 1000 years of gays being accepted within society. There has never been another specific empire's downfall ever blamed on gay people by these Christianists. They just use the plural "empires" for effect. It's Rome the speak of, and only Rome.

But moreover, the Christians wanted the Empire gone, and if they blame us gays for its destruction, then what is their problem? We did them a favor apparently.

So they want their cake and to eat it too. (And of course, deny us a cake and any eating whatsoever.)

Michael I am far less concerned with ancient history than future possibilities. We, all of us, can build something valuable or something atrocious. The problem is discerning the difference.

Renee Thomas | May 10, 2011 9:10 PM


It's from a thoughtful and careful reading of history that we learn to discern the difference.

Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.

i would highly recommend a fairly recent work by Prof. James J O'Donnell entitled "The Ruin of the Roman Empire" [bold added by me] that relies on new primary sources even down to sales records;

his basic premise is that rather than a fall due to invasions and fighting with various external enemies, as in the classic Fall of the Roman Empire based more on hearsay, opinion & rumour than research, it all came from within; one of the points is the conflicts between varied christian sects for power and money and control; of course, the RC church was there all the way leading the fight and came out on top!

The homo-rabid Chistianist historical revisionists like to blame the fall of every major civilization on homosexuality.

Many civilizations have failed when the serf-workers became oppressively over-taxed by the elite upper-class, and finally got fed up and rebelled.

Notice anything familiar?

Can you say, "more tax cuts for the rich" ... ?

I remember reading that column back when it appeared, but I couldn't find it again when I wanted to post on it. Now that someone has posted it to Bilerico, though, I'll be able to find it.

That theory about Rome has been around for a while. While nations and populations change for lots of complicated reasons, it is important to point out that homosexuality wasn't among them.

I say it's important for a reason - in 9th grade world history we had to learn homosexuality as one of the reasons the Roman Empire fell. I still remember that, the teacher was fairly popular but at that point I just thought he was full of shit.

Somehow I'm a little doubtful that it's a "just this one thing" kinda reason. It takes quite a bit to bring down an empire that's lasted for centuries and a little man-on-man lovin' isn't gonna do it.

Excellent article, even if it was a bit defensive. I fully understand why it was defensive; but I feel that historians should be far more upset than the LBGTQ, etc, etc community. The concept of the fall of the Roman Empire has been drastically altered from what actually happened to what is currently taught. What is taught, basically, is that the Roman Empire was magnificent, opulent, and with a military might never before seen...and then it suddenly collapsed and was conquered by barbarians in the same year. There is very little discussion about the centuries long decline, economic problems, and the problem of defending such a large Empire; the lessons go from beautiful, pristine Rome to a bizarre, Dystopian view of the 'end' of the Roman Empire.
So, in short; it's not really the hateful fearmongers that have an extremely poor grasp of history that are to be blamed. It's the hateful fearmongers who have insisted on reducing funds for public education who should be blamed for the erroneous allegory of gays toppling the Roman Empire.

Back in the time of Rome's Fall, the Christians themselves saw that they were vulnerable to charges of Rome's fall being due to the abandoning of the Great Mother, who had delivered Rome during the Punic Wars.

There was such a widesprad discussion on the matter that Augustine of Hippo was motivated to write "City of God" to counter such claims by Pagan sympathisers.