Last academic year, one of my students wrote a dissertation comparing Tony Blair with the first Roman emperor, Augustus. She looked at themes such as the way they managed their public image, the things they emphasised in their political rhetoric, and the relationship between their private lives (e.g. religion, family) and public profiles. All in all, she did a good job of arguing that although they were obviously operating in very different political environments, there were certain distinctive similarities in the ways that they presented themselves as politicians and aimed to foster public support – a basic template for statesmanship, if you will.
Yesterday, Tony Blair ensured that there is yet another resonance between their careers by publishing his memoirs and dedicating their proceeds to the Royal British Legion. Specifically, a £4.6 million advance payment from his publishers will go towards the Legion’s Battle Back Challenge Centre for the rehabilitation of injured service personnel – as will any further profits if the book out-sells expectations. This is an immensely canny move, which metaphorically transforms a man whom many despise for his eagerness to launch illegal and unnecessary wars in Iraq and Afghanistan into a selfless benefactor, putting the needs of the soldiers who fought for him before his own financial interests. As the official statement has it, this is to be his way of recognising and honouring “the courage and sacrifice the armed forces demonstrate”. The contrast with Peter Mandelson’s slimy scandal-mongering method of publicising his own memoirs is striking. And though Mandelson may make more money from his book, Blair’s approach is likely to reach more people, more persuasively. Even his critics will now feel that at least he is not profiting directly if they buy they book and read his side of the story – which must, of course, be what he really hopes to get out of it.
But, as with so many strokes of political genius, Augustus got there first. His donations to his veteran soldiers weren’t actually funded out of the profits of writing his memoirs. In a world without copyright law, politicians couldn’t expect to make serious money that way, and in any case generally didn’t need to. But they wrote them anyway, for much the same motivations which Tony Blair seems to be displaying – in order to ensure that their stories were recorded in the way that they wanted them to be told. In Augustus’ case, there was one early account, probably written in the 20s BC to justify his own illegal and unnecessary wars, but which is now largely lost beyond a few quotations in other authors. What survives now, though, is closer in character to Tony Blair’s book anyway, in that it is a summary of his entire reign, written from a perspective at the end of his political career – which, since he was an absolute monarch, was in his case also the end of his life.
One thing which this account certainly goes out of its way to emphasise is Augustus’ generosity throughout his lifetime – and especially towards his soldiers. The very opening sentence announces that it will record “the amounts which he expended upon the state and the Roman people”. Chapters 15 to 18 then detail his many cash handouts, including those spent on buying land to provide pensions for veteran soldiers, giving out special one-off donatives to veterans already settled in his colonies, and setting up a new treasury especially to fund army pensions. In case you missed that bit, or failed to keep an appropriate running total in your head as you read, there is also a handy summary at the end recapping the total sum spent: 600 million denarii, which for context is 2.67 million times the annual wage of an ordinary legionary soldier at the time. And all of this, he is very careful to specify, came from his own personal fortune, not from the public treasury. He wanted his soldiers to feel personal gratitude and loyalty towards him and his family – not towards some vague abstraction like the state.
So this is how to round off your political legacy on the right note, today as it was two millennia ago – publish your own account of your career, and couple it with a magnanimous demonstration of your selfless and paternalistic generosity towards the troops whom you have sent into action.
The similarities are not perfect, of course. Blair still maintains that he was ‘right’ to go into Iraq, but he also lives in a society where plenty of other people are ready to criticise him for it. Augustus, by contrast, writes with pride of his foreign conquests. Though he does take care to specify that he never engaged in an ‘unjust war’, this wasn’t in any case a criticism he generally needed to worry about, at least in relation to wars against non-Romans. It simply wouldn’t have occurred to most of his contemporaries in Rome to question Augustus’ right to wage war on their behalf against troublesome foreign peoples.
Perhaps more comparable to Tony Blair’s Iraq and Afghanistan were the civil wars which Augustus had fought in the 40s and 30s BC, first against the assassins of Julius Caesar and then against Antony and Cleopatra. That was something which Roman commentators did object to – the losses of Roman lives on both sides, for nothing more than the sake of an individual’s hold on power. It was probably largely in order to justify and excuse his role in these wars that Augustus had published his earlier (lost) memoirs. And it is also in those parts of his surviving account that he can be seen most obviously suppressing details and obscuring unpalatable truths. He even calls one set of his opponents ‘pirates’ – surely the ‘terrorists’ of the first century BC.
Blair has also been subject to criticism for his donation to the Royal British Legion in a way that Augustus would never have expected. Commentators have called it an empty gesture, an attempt to ease a guilty conscience, and even a form of tax avoidance. But Roman commentators were generally less cynical – or perhaps simply more realistic – about the motives of their politicians. The specific benefactions which a politician chose to make could be criticised, of course, as Cicero’s scathing letter to a friend about the opening shows at Pompey’s theatre reveals. But the basic fact of making large donations was a widely accepted form of political currency. It is obvious from Augustus’ text that he expects nothing but adulation for his generosity towards the troops.
Did he expect people to forget all about his misdeeds in return, as people seem to think that Tony Blair is now hoping? Probably not, and they certainly didn’t. But Augustus wouldn’t have expected criticism for the act of the donation itself. This doesn’t mean that I don’t think people today are right to question and criticise Tony Blair’s motives. I’m pretty sure that we are better off living in a society where we aren’t willing (or desperate enough?) to overlook large crimes against humanity for the sake of small material benefits. But our cynical response to this sort of action does also tend to mean that the rich in modern Britain are discouraged from making benefactions at all, thus cutting off a potential means of the redistribution of wealth, as well as a form of connection between people at different levels of the social hierarchy. I wonder if we’ve got it quite right, either.