Anyone with a passing interest in ancient history has probably observed, as did the indefatigable Rogueclassicist, that “fall of the Roman empire” stories have been doing the rounds of the popular press in recent days, prompted by the remarks on the subject of Italian academic Roberto de Mattei to a Catholic radio station. de Mattei is a professor of history (reportedly teaching and researching early modern, modern and Church history at various institutions), sometime advisor to the Italian government and the Vatican, and senior political appointee to the Italian National Research Council (CNR). His remarks amount to a fairly formulaic polemic against homosexual people and those who support or tolerate them, alleging their responsibility for the so-called “fall” of the Roman Empire in the West in the fifth century, based on a historically and scientifically fanciful “contagion” theory of sexual orientation, a view of divine action that would not be alien to readers of Greek or Roman mythology, and an outright rejection of the complex narratives of the later Roman empire favoured by ancient historians who elect to burden themselves with evidence. Indeed, the professor’s interest seems hardly to be in Roman history at all, but rather in the use of a tendentious reading of it, founded in the work of an ancient Christian polemicist, to support his own view in favour of intolerance and marginalization of sexual minorities in the modern world. He also appears to hold some views on the recent natural disasters in Japan which would appear to have no basis in academic history or the sciences, and precious little in reason or humanity; and among other ventures outside his field has edited a 2009 book against the theory of evolution, based on the proceedings of a conference, both with financial support from the same research council of which he has been deputy head since 2008.
followed by a piece of even date surveying briefly modern scholarly opinion on the question, at
From quotes I’ve seen of de Mattei’s comments, as for example the extracts in Italian with English translation at
for which link I am grateful to Judith Weingarten, it is possible to track down the ancient work to which he is referring; that is, De Gubernatione Dei (“On the Government of God”) by the fifth century church father Salvianus, who was active in what is now France. He was born circa 400, apparently witnessed the Franks’ attack on Trier in 418, will have known of the sack of Rome by the Visigoths under Alaric in 410, and is writing in the wake of the Vandal capture of Carthage (and presumably took a similar view of the sack of Rome in 455, as he apparently lived until after 470), which he interpreted as divine judgment on a decadent and sinful empire and a Christianity that had gone astray. In addition to the eight books De Gubernatione Dei, the extant works of Salvianus comprise nine letters and the four books Ad Ecclesiam (“To the Church“) against avarice, published under the pseudonym of Timotheus. The standard edition of all of these extant works seems still to be that of Franciscus (i. e., Franz) Pauly, Salviani Presbyteri Massiliensis Opera Omnia (Vienna [Vindobonae] : C. Gerold 1883), volume 8 of the Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Latinorum (CSEL) series. This can be found at
E. M. Sanford’s 1930 translation of the work in question, On the Government of God: A Treatise wherein are shown by Argument and by Examples drawn from the Abandoned Society of the Times the Ways of God toward His Creatures, Indited by Salvian, Presbyter of Marseilles and Master of Bishops, as a Warning and Counsel (New York : Columbia University Press 1930), is available on Roger Pearse’s site in the collection of texts at
The specific passage referred to by de Mattei would appear to be from Book 7, beginning in chapter 16, which chapter commences on p. 176 in Pauly’s edition – it’s XVI in his Roman-numeralled chapters, 65 in his marginal Arabic numerals. This may be read in translation at
Salvianus was living in a period of warfare, instability, and the decline of long-standing institutions and structures. His own lifetime saw two major centres of the Western Roman Empire and Church fall to invaders, including Rome itself twice, in the space of half a century. This had obvious political and military implications, is known to have had major social effects in the displacement of people, would have religious effects (in that the establishment of Gothic kingdoms in the West brought new prominence to Arian Christianity and the Vandal domination of Roman Africa saw its rise there for a time, not to be displaced until Justinian’s general Belisarius conquered some of these areas the following century), and must have led many to feel more than usually uncertain and fearful, and to cast about for explanations, just as did people in the wake of the 18th century revolutions, or the international wars of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. For Salvianus, the answer lay in his religious worldview, and, not wholly unlike pre-Christian Roman writers such as Livy, Tacitus, and Juvenal, he saw the cause of such momentous events in the moral weakness of the Roman (and Christian) world as compared with his image both of its earlier self, and of the so-called “barbarians” who had overpowered it militarily. In the Flavian period, the epic poet Valerius Flaccus (Argonautica 1.531-60) had depicted Iuppiter evaluating the worthiness of powers to rule, and letting empires fall if they failed to measure up; the narrative of moral superiority to “paganism” established by the early Christian writers perhaps inevitably supported a similar worldview, and Salvianus certainly seems to have held it. Prof. de Mattei too, to judge by his record of publications and his recent comments, seems to feel old, established institutions and ideas to which he is attached declining and changing, and to see himself as a latter day Salvianus, preaching a traditional morality to a fallen world. He is free to do so, of course; however, one – whether religious believer or not – is equally free to observe his apparent disregard for the extensive labours of ancient historians, to wonder whether this senior functionary of the Italian National Research Council is in fact committed to the furtherance of research by experts and to the respect for scientific methods one would expect such a body to espouse, and to reject both his fearful attitude to social and political change, and his apparent view of a world in which sexual minorities have to be persecuted for the pleasure (not to mention thousands of people in Japan dying to proclaim the displeasure) of a jealous deity whose wishes he claims to profess.