Only time will tell whether Tony Blair was wise to publish his memoirs. The first Roman emperor Augustus, who came to power in 31 BC after a bloody civil war, abandoned his.
Its purpose seems to have been to answer his critics, who were accusing him of being a merciless, criminal, cowardly, jumped-up nobody. But in 23 BC he discontinued it. Instead, he concentrated on refining his Res Gestae (‘My Achievements’), which was inscribed on two bronze plaques and placed outside his mausoleum in Rome. In other words, Augustus was interested in posterity’s judgement. He realised that an autobiography which merely refought yesterday’s battles achieved nothing except keeping the muck fresh and re-usable. But a bald statement of what he had actually done—let his enemies, and more importantly posterity, chew on that.
This c. 350-line document is a stupendous list of honours, titles, and achievements (‘I restored these buildings, built these temples, put on these shows, conquered these lands, took these offices’) interspersed with occasional comment emphasising his conservatism (e.g. ‘I did not accept office contrary to our ancestors’ customs’). And Blair?
Further, the private expenses which Augustus lists as ‘having devoted to the state and the people’ run to billions. The Roman legionary earned 900 sestertii (ss) a year. Augustus lists hand-outs to every single Roman of three hundred ss in 44 BC (under Julius Caesar’s will) and four hundred ss in 29, 24 and 11 BC. He bought land for troops in Italy and the provinces to a sum of 860 million ss; and gave another 400 million ss in ‘rewards’ to soldiers later on. He transferred private funds of 320 million ss to the treasury; he paid for grain distribution among the people when treasury funds ran short; built temples; laid on games. But this was what an emperor was supposed to do—serve the people. And Blair? Let us hope, for his sake, the donation to the British Legion’s ‘Battle Back Challenge’ for wounded soldiers is just a start.
One of Augustus’ proudest boasts was to have found Rome brick and left it marble. Blair’s may well be to have found Baghdad concrete and left it rubble.