A prominent Italian historian has provoked a furious row after claiming that the Roman Empire collapsed because a "contagion of homosexuality and effeminacy" made it easy pickings for the barbarian hordes.
Professor Roberto de Mattei (63), deputy head of the country's National Research Council, claimed the empire was fatally weakened after conquering Carthage, which he called "a paradise for homosexuals".
He told 'Radio Maria', a Roman Catholic radio station, that it was the result of "the effeminacy of a few in Carthage... infected the many. The abhorrent presence of a few gays infected a good part of the (Roman) people".
The remarks prompted calls for Prof de Mattei's resignation, with critics saying they were homophobic, offensive and unbecoming of his position.
The Romans achieved domination over Carthage, in present-day Tunisia, in the third and second centuries BC.
Prof de Mattei claimed that it was as the capital of Rome's north African provinces that Cartagena became a hotbed of sexual perversion, gradually influencing Rome, which fell to barbarian tribes in AD410.
Prof de Mattei, a conservative Catholic and a former adviser on international affairs to the government, drew a parallel between the supposed moral degeneracy of imperial Rome and that of contemporary Italy.
"Today we live in an era in which the worst vices are inscribed in law as human rights," he said. "Every evil must have its punishment, either in our times or in the afterlife."
Politicians and academics were left aghast and more than 7,000 have signed a petition calling for his resignation.
"His homophobic and extreme views are offensive to the organisation he leads," said Massimo Donadi, a senior member of an opposition party, Italy of Values, adding that he would refer the affair to parliament.
Anna Paola Concia, an MP from the opposition Democratic Party, said: "A fanatic such as him cannot remain vice-president of the council in a country that has at its heart culture, human rights and respect for diversity. He is nothing other than a homophobic fundamentalist on a par with Iran's President Ahmadinejad."
Last month Prof de Mattei said that the earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan were punishments from God and "a way of purifying human sin". (© Daily Telegraph, London)