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In antiquity, publicans (Greek τελώνης telōnēs; Latin publicanus (singular); publicani (plural)) were public contractors, in which role they often supplied the Roman legions and military, managed the collection of port duties, and oversaw public building projects. In addition, they served as tax collectors for the Republic (and later the Roman Empire), bidding on contracts (from the Senate in Rome) for the collection of various types of taxes. Importantly, this role as tax collectors was not emphasized until late into the history of the Republic (c. 1st century BC). The publicans were usually of the class of equites.
At the height of the Republic's era of provincial expansion (roughly the 1st and 2nd centuries BC until the end of the Republic) the Roman tax farming system was very profitable for the publicani. The right to collect taxes for a particular region would be auctioned every few years for a value that (in theory) approximated the tax available for collection in that region. The payment to Rome was treated as a loan and the publicani would receive interest on their payment at the end of the collection period. In addition, any excess (over their bid) tax collected would be pure profit for the publicani. The principal risk to the publicani was that the tax collected would be less than the sum bid.
By New Testament times, the provincial peoples came to see the publicans chiefly as tax collectors. It is in this sense that the term is used in Jesus' parable of the Pharisee and the Publican. However, their role as public contractors, especially as regards building projects, was still significant. With the rise of a much larger Imperial bureaucracy, this task of the publicans, as well as their overall importance, declined precipitously. Evidence for the existence of publicans extends as far back as the 3rd century BC, although it is generally assumed that they existed at still earlier times in Roman history. Knowledge of a tentative terminus post quem is taken from the histories of the 1st century AD Imperial historian Livy. By the time of the Renaissance, the word "publican" meant a tavern keeper (the licensed landlord of a public house), and by extension a slang term for a pimp.
In England in the late 12th century there existed a religious sect called the publicani. Among its beliefs was the view that procreation was a sin. The sect, despite the self-extinction inherent in its own philosophy, was considered heretical and persecuted in the 1180-1190s by Archbishop William of Rheims. This is referenced in Banks and Binns' introduction to the Otia Imperialia, a 13th-century work by Gervase of Tilbury.
Notes and references
- Badian, Ernst (1983). Publicans and Sinners. Cornell University Press.
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