When Mike Johnson was elected Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, he was not well known on a national level. Since then, journalists have reported on many aspects of his politics and his career, including his promotion of the “Great Replacement” conspiracy theory, his work as a l awyer for an organization that the SPLC has designated a hate group (and whose fundraising campaign Pharos has documented), and, most recently, his support for a group that promoted the debunked practice of “conversion therapy,” which attempts to convince or force gay people to conform to heterosexual norms. The same report also revealed that he’s one of those men who thinks about the Roman Empire. To be more specific, he thinks about how homosexuality caused its fall.
Andrew Kaczynski, the CNN reporter who found these remarks in an interview Johnson gave to a Christian radio program in Washington DC (the CNN graphic misspells the host’s name, which is “Kroah”), scoffs at this claim, calling it “odd.” That description was repeated in other reporting on the remark. Plenty of people on social media are laughing at the absurdity of this idea. However, such a dismissive attitude ignores that there are ancient authors that complain about men having sex with men as a symptom of decline. Sallust, for example, includes “men playing the woman” among the signs of Roman decadence following the Punic Wars. Polybius refers to Roman men “abandoning themselves to amours with boys.” Juvenal’s Satires proclaim their intention to expose the vices of Rome and make frequent reference to men who enjoy being penetrated sexually (the Latin term is cinaedus). If you want to claim that sex between men can be linked to civilizational decline, you will find plenty of Roman authors who seem like they agree with you.
This doesn’t mean you’d be right, of course. Despite Johnson’s claim that “objective” historians agree with him, none of these authors deserve that label. The only people who think they’re “objective” are white nationalist intellectuals. Sallust vilifies the supposedly degenerate sexuality of Roman aristocrats to advance his own anti-aristocratic political agenda. Polybius is a Greek-speaking subject of the Roman empire who is attempting to predict a decline in Rome comparable to one he believes led to Greece’s surrender to the empire. We do not need to decide here whether Juvenal’s poems are sincere or ironic; even if they are sincere, only a perverse interpretation can ignore the unhinged quality of his unrelenting screeds that point to anything other than objectivity. And this is before we even raise the problem that the modern term “homosexuality” is a poor fit for the sexual politics of ancient Rome. Johnson’s theory deserves our contempt. But that doesn’t mean he just made it up out of thin air.
Johnson isn’t even the highest-ranking American political politician ever to make this claim
It’s highly unlikely that Johnson, who called the Christian bible his “rule book,” has been reading Polybius and Sallust. This isn’t a theory he came up with himself. Johnson isn’t even the highest-ranking American political politician ever to make this claim. As Pharos has documented, Richard Nixon did so as president. 2016 Presidential candidate Ben Carson made the similar claim that same-sex marriage destroyed Rome in a book he wrote in 2013. And this is before you get into the avowed white nationalists who have argued this, including Classics Professor Revilo Oliver, who contributed a chapter to a 1967 book claiming to reveal “homosexual and communist influence in government corruption.” Oliver writes there that, originally, “the Romans…felt Western man’s natural abhorrence of homosexuality” but that after Rome “had suffered a great influx of aliens, including Orientals…we see the beginning of moral decay.” Where did this idea come from?
Alexander Demandt includes “homosexuality” in his exhaustive list of the causes historians have named to explain the fall of Rome, so we have good reason to think it exists in scholarship. The historian of homosexuality John Boswell calls the link between homosexuality and the fall of Rome one of two “major distortions in modern treatments of Roman homosexuality” (the other is the idea that homosexuality was illegal in Republican Rome, a claim that rests on a few very difficult to interpret passages and a law so obscure that we don’t even know how to spell it’s name) but does not name the scholars he is arguing against. Luckily you almost don’t need footnotes to be able to guess where explanations of the fall of Rome come from. They can almost always be found in Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.
Gibbon is better known for the different hateful claim that immigration caused the fall of Rome. It’s what makes him a favorite of people like William Luther Pierce, the author of the Turner Diaries, who said in an interview in his organization’s magazine that Gibbon was the second thing he read to learn the “truth” about race. Similarly, Steve Bannon called Gibbon one of his most formative influences in an interview with Breitbart. The notorious antisemite Kevin MacDonald once published an article on his white supremacist website that was nothing more than a picture of an edition of Gibbon, as if to signal its centrality to his politics.
Gibbon is praised for his comprehensive knowledge of ancient sources but on this topic he is remarkably uncritical of their context and biases
Gibbon doesn’t quite come out and say that homosexuality caused the collapse of Roman political power but it’s clear he thought it played a role. Revilo Oliver’s idea that homosexuality was alien to Romanness and therefore implicitly a change for the worse may come from Gibbons’ claim that the Romans “were infected by the example of the Etruscans and the Greeks.” And employing language familiar from modern homophobic polemics, Gibbon called it an “odious vice” and a “sin against nature” that “nature abominates.” He comments that the honors that Hadrian paid to his lover Antinous “still dishonor the memory” of the emperor but suggests that nearly all Roman rulers of the early empire brought such dishonor upon themselves: “of the first fifteen emperors, Claudius was the only one whose taste in love was entirely correct.” He adds in a footnote to a passage on the “unwelcome antiquity and extent of this disease” that he “believe[s], and hope[s], that the negroes, in their own country, were exempt from this moral pestilence,” thereby making a contribution to the intellectual history of homophobic anti-Blackness.
Gibbon has been praised for his comprehensive knowledge of ancient sources, but on Roman sexuality he is remarkably uncritical of their context and biases. Juvenal and the Republican poet Catullus are foundational to his analysis: he writes that “from Catullus to Juvenal, the poets accuse and celebrate the degeneracy of the times,” ignoring how Catullus’ invective against sexually passive men says more about Roman concepts of masculinity than civilizational decline. And Gibbon accepts Salvian’s description of how “the peculiar vices of each country were collected in the sink of Carthage,” whose “streets…were polluted by effeminate wretches.” Salvian, however, is citing Carthage as a model of how insufficient devotion to God produces degeneracy and misery. In this he’s actually a bit like Mike Johnson.
The influence of this theory has been so pervasive that even gay activists have reproduced it
Gibbon wrote in the late 18th century and his Decline and Fall is more than a thousand pages long. We may justly ask how many people read it at a level of detail to be influenced by these passages. But Will Durant, the author of the best-selling and award winning Story of Civilization ,reproduced Gibbon’s perspective for a mass-market audience in the twentieth century. In From Caesar to Christ we find the old explanation that “homosexualism was stimulated by contact with Greece and Asia” after which it “flourished with Oriental abandon.” In the index of that volume, “homosexuality” appears under the heading “perversion.” In the next volume, The Age of Faith, Durant links sexuality with decline, writing that the “sexual morals” of the Germanic tribes who attacked the empire “were superior to those of the Romans and Greeks.” Gibbon’s hateful invective has cast a long shadow indeed.
The influence of this theory that links homosexuality to Roman degeneracy has been so pervasive that even gay activists have reproduced it and even contributed to it, as several of the contributors to a collection of essays on Ancient Rome and the Construction of Modern Homosexual Identities demonstrate. Reacting against the sexual explicitness of Catullus, Martial, Petronius, and Juvenal, John Addington Symonds, who coined the term “Greek love” as an ideal of homosexuality, wrote that “instead of love, lust was the deity of the boy-lover on the shores of the Tiber” and decried “the obscenity of the Latin race” and its “foul” and “nasty” poetry (pp.112–113). The socialist and gay rights activist Edward Carpenter said that the “Roman age” could “only with difficulty seize the finer inspiration of the homogenic love” of the Greeks (p.112n17). Romantics and Victorians also reproduced this idea. Shelley contrasted the “licentious Romans who had contributed to the overthrow of the Republic” to the supposedly beautiful passion of the Greeks (p.19) and Tennyson, in order to make the ancient Britons more virtuous than their later Roman conquerors, wrote a poem in which Boudicca condemn the sexual license of the Romans (p.28–29).
So what Mike Johnson says about Rome and homosexuality isn’t “odd,” it’s an idea with a long, mainstream history. But that’s hardly surprising, because homophobia has a long mainstream history too. This claim has little to do with the history of Rome and everything to do with the history of hatred of Gay people. A history still unfolding in the highest echelons of our government.