A prominent Italian historian has claimed that the Roman Empire collapsed because a "contagion of homosexuality and effeminacy" made it easy pickings for barbarian hordes, sparking a furious row.
Roberto De Mattei, 63, the deputy head of the country's National Research Council, claimed that the empire was fatally weakened after conquering Carthage, which he described as "a paradise for homosexuals".
The remarks prompted angry calls for his resignation, with critics saying his comments were homophobic, offensive and unbecoming of his position.
The fall of the Roman Empire was a result of "the effeminacy of a few in Carthage, a paradise for homosexuals, who infected the many.
"The abhorrent presence of a few gays infected a good part of the (Roman) people," Prof Mattei told Radio Maria, a Catholic radio station.
The Roman Republic achieved domination over Carthage, in present-day Tunisia, during the Punic Wars of the third and second centuries BC, during which Hannibal made his ultimately abortive crossing of the Alps with war elephants.
After the third and final Punic War, Carthage fell into Roman hands, followed by most of the other dependencies of the Carthaginian Empire.
Prof 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 itself, which eventually fell to barbarian tribes in 410AD.
The corruption and decadence of some Roman emperors has been a staple of the cinema for decades, from humorous pastiches such as Frankie Howerd's 1970s television series Up Pompeii! to the 1960 Hollywood film Spartacus.
A homoerotic scene in Spartacus in which Laurence Olivier's character, the Roman General Crassus, attempts to seduce a young slave played by Tony Curtis was cut from the original film but restored in the 1990s.
A more muscular portrayal of Roman manhood was offered by the 2000 film Gladiator, starring Russell Crowe as a betrayed general who comes to Rome to seek revenge as a professional fighter.
Prof 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. "Every evil must have its punishment, either in our times or in the afterlife." Politicians and academics were left aghast by his remarks and more than 7,000 have signed a petition calling for his immediate 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 main 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." Prof De Mattei, who was awarded an order of knighthood by the Vatican in recognition for his service to the Catholic Church, has previously caused controversy by speaking out about gay rights, the contraceptive pill and the alleged persecution of Christians by Muslims in Kosovo and Lebanon.
Last month he said that the earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan were punishments from God and "a way of purifying human sin".