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Was Rome felled by gays or Goths or Christianity?

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Neil Steinberg

Ignorance is the great engine of human misery, the fertile field where its fruit, hatred, grows in all its awful forms, from the first human, crouching on a dark savannah, screeching terrified defiance at a shape silhouetted on the horizon, to Rep. Ronald Stephens, rising to his feet in the Illinois House, blaming "open homosexuality" for the fall of Rome.

"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.

Second, such a swath of land -- the empire stretched from Great Britain to Egypt -- had, over half a millennium, various views toward homosexuality. Yes, at times Romans would chat about their catamite lovers with an ease strange to our ears. But other times they'd be put to death for it.

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.

So if our policy toward Illinois gays should be guided by Roman history -- insane, but what Stephens is suggesting -- we should pitch the distractions of faith and model ourselves after the victorious German tribes.

What were they like- The barbarians who sacked Rome were not only a bunch of lazy Teutonic drunks, according to Gibbon, who only cared to conquer Italy because beer, while "sufficient for the gross purposes of German debauchery," wasn't good enough for "those who had tasted the rich wines of Italy and . . . sighed for that more delicious species of intoxication.''

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 of the City).

None of this, of course, will matter to Stephens, or his constituents who let him run unopposed in the past two elections. For them, the glory of Rome is not a historical event studied by the great minds of Western civilization for the past 1500 years, but another talking point, and that, in invoking the fall as a cautionary tale relevant today, he is wrong in every particular won't influence him any more than the fact that he is wrong about the supposed pernicious influence of gay unions, or gays in the military, or any of the other alleged faults pinned on gays by an ever-shrinking band of zealots desperate to project their fear onto somebody.

This inversion -- where gays are found culpable for something actually the fault of their oppressors -- is par for the course. Look at gay adoption, long opposed by the faithful on the premise that gays shouldn't be allowed around children, even their own.

Where did all these kids in need of adoption come from- Oh right, that would be from heterosexual couples who so completely failed their children that they were seized by the state. And what about the gays who want to adopt them- Any equal fault, any evidence that they provide less of a home than any other adoptive family- Here's a hint: No.

History is open to interpretation, but it isn't a toy dog you can make leap however you like. That Stephens, a pharmacist, would present the culture of Virgil, Ovid and Seneca solely as less strident gay bashers than ourselves who, thus weakened, fell to the barbarians, is sad but not extraordinary.

The truth is that societies are complex; all have good and bad qualities. I can savor the wit and intelligence of Roman times while recognizing that they were slave-owners capable of the most staggering cruelties. To fault Ancient Rome for coddling gays is like blaming the Nazis for bad civic art.

That Christianity has been a scourge to gays is without doubt. The question now: Is that intrinsic to the faith- Given the many -- gay and straight alike -- who say it is not, who focus on the love, tolerance, grace, and human dignity that Christianity offers, those who insist it must be and flail against gay citizens are reading from an uncorrected text.