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In this paper, I argue that modern scholarship has misunderstood the Republican demagogues known as the affectatores regni. These three men, Spurius Cassius, Spurius Maelius, and Marcus Manlius Capitolinus, share a number of characteristics, such as their benefactions to the plebs and their condemnations to death. Because of this, it has been argued that Cassius, Maelius, and Manlius form a complementary group in Roman political thought (e.g., Vigourt 2001). I argue that there is no indication in the ancient evidence that these three men occupied a distinct place, that of affectatores regni, in the Roman tradition; rather, they were first grouped together by Mommsen (1871). By examining these men outside of the frame of affectatio regni, I argue that these stories must be considered within the context of the larger dialogues on tyranny at Rome, on elite over-reaching, and on the benefits of political competition.

Previous work on the affectatores has suggested that these stories are late Republican inventions, inspired by post-Gracchan politics: they were arranged as a connected trio to highlight the danger of popular politicians to Roman political life and to reinforce conservative values (e.g., Lintott 1970; Pina Polo 2006). Such scholarship points to Cicero as an instrumental promulgator of such stories, because of his firm belief in the SCU as a means of eliminating possible threats to the Republic (such as Catiline). But closer examination of the Republican sources (Cicero, Livy, and Dionysius of Halicarnassus) indicates that the triad of Spurius Cassius, Spurius Maelius, and Manlius Capitolinus is in fact illusory. The three never appear by themselves to indicate political malfeasance. Instead, the variety of combinations of malefactors from the early Republic immediately stands out, highlighting diverse dangers to the early Republic (see Smith 2006).

A re-examination of Cicero's use of these figures confirms that the modern concept of affectatio regni has been wrongly applied to the surviving evidence. For Cicero, these men are much less important than their opponents. He most frequently refers not to the so-called affectatores, but to the virtuous men who saved the Republic from them (e.g., Dom. 86; Sest. 143). These references are closely linked with his own self-presentation as a savior of Rome. Cicero rarely mentions Cassius, Maelius, or Manlius when we would expect it, such as the Philippics or the Catilinarians. Instead, Cicero's interest in the Maelius story in particular (e.g., Mil. 83; Att. 2.24.3), where he takes pains to insert himself into the heroic narratives of the past, indicates that his primary concern was in controlling the discursive use of this tale to portray himself in the best light, rather than in relating attempts to establish tyranny at Rome.

I argue that we must return the so-called affectatores to their original context: as parts of a larger pattern of attempts to transgress the boundaries of permissible behavior. Abandoning the modern framework of the affectatores regni clarifies the Republican conception of regnum. Attempting kingship was a threat that could take many forms, rather than following the pattern set by the three affectatores; it was not confined to simply gaining too much popularity with the plebs. Re-examining the exempla in context, rather than from the perspective of the affectatores, reveals concern over elite interaction at the highest level. Most dangerous, in Cicero's view, was the possibility that political bickering harmed the best men and impaired their ability to benefit the state. In this sense, the affectatores are warnings of the dangers inherent in not (only) tyranny, but also excessive competition.