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p972 Publicani

Article by Leonhard Schmitz, Ph.D, F.R.S.E, Rector of the High School of Edinburgh,
on pp972‑974 of

William Smith, D.C.L., LL.D.:
A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, John Murray, London, 1875.

PUBLICANI, farmers of the public revenues of the Roman state (vectigalia). Their name is formed from publicum, which signifies all that belongs to the state, and is sometimes used as synonymous with vectigal (Dig. 39 tit. 4 s.1 §1; 50 tit. 16 s.16; Suet. Nero, 1; Cic. pro Rabir. Post. 2; Val. Max. VI.9 §7). The revenues which Rome derived from conquered countries, consisting chiefly of tolls, tithes, harbour duties, the scriptura or the tax which was paid for the use of the public pasture lands, and the duties paid for the use of mines and salt-works (salinae), were let out, or, as the Romans expressed it, were sold by the censors in Rome itself to the highest bidder (Cic. de Leg. Agr. II.21, c. Verr. III.7). This sale generally took place in the month of Quinctilis and was made for a lustrum (Macrob. Sat. I.12). The terms on which the revenues were let, were fixed by the censors in the so‑called leges censoriae (Cic. ad Quint. Frat. I.2; Varro, de Re Rust. II.1; Festus, s.v. Produit). The people or the senate however sometimes modified the terms fixed by the censors in order to raise the credit of the publicani (Plut. Flamin. 19; Polyb. VI.17; Liv. XXXIX.44), and in some cases even the tribunes of the people interfered in this branch of the administration (Liv. XLIII.16). The tithes raised in the province of Sicily alone, with the exception of those of wine, oil, and garden p973produce, were not sold at Rome, but in the districts of Sicily itself, according to a practice established by Hiero (Cic. c. Verr. II.3, 64, &c.). The persons who undertook the farming of the public revenue of course belonged to the wealthiest Romans. Their wealth and consequent influence may be seen from the fact, that as early as the second Punic war, after the battle of Cannae, when the aerarium was entirely exhausted, the publicani advanced large sums of money to the state, on condition of repayment after the end of the war (Val. Max. V.6 §8; Liv. XXIV.18; cf. XXIII.48, &c.). But what class of Romans the publicani were at this time is not stated; scarcely half a century later however we find that they were principally men of the equestrian order (Liv. XLIII.16); and down to the end of the republic, as well as during the early part of the empire, the farming of the public revenues was almost exclusively in the hands of the equites; whence the word equites and publicani are sometimes used as synonymous (Cic. c. Verr. I.51, II.71, ad Att. II.1; Suet. Aug. 24; Tacit. Annal. IV.6).

The publicani had to give security to the state for the sum at which they bought one or more branches of the revenue in a province; but as for this reason the property of even the wealthiest individual must have been inadequate, a number of equites generally united together and formed a company (socii, societas or corpus), which was recognized by the state (Dig. 3 tit. 4 s.1), and by which they were enabled to carry on their undertakings upon a large scale. Such companies appear as early as the second Punic war (Liv. XXIII.48, 49). The shares which each partner of such a company took in the business, were called partes, and if they were small, particulae (Cic. pro Rabir. Post. 2; Val. Max. VI.9 §7). The responsible person in each company, and the one who contracted with the state, was called manceps (Festus, s.v. Manceps; Pseudo-Ascon. in Divinat. p113, ed. Orelli). [Manceps]; but there was also a magister to manage the business of each society, who resided at Rome, and kept an extensive correspondence with the agents in the provinces (Cic. ad Att. V.15, c. Verr. II.74). He seems to have held his office only for one year; his representative in the provinces was called sub magistro, who had to travel about and superintend the actual business of collecting the revenues. The ἀρχιτελώνης in St. Luke (xix.2) was probably such a sub magistro. The magister at Rome had also to keep the accounts which were sent in to him (tabulae accepti et expensi). The credit of these companies of publicani and the flourishing state of their finances were of the utmost importance to the state, and in fact its very foundation: of this the Romans were well aware (Cic. pro Leg. Manil. 6), and Cicero therefore calls them the "ornamentum civitatis et firmamentum reipublicae" (cf. pro Planc. 9). It has been already mentioned that the publicani, in case of need, acted as a kind of public bank and advanced sums of money to the state (cf. Cic. ad Fam. V.20), which therefore thought them worthy of its especial protection. But they abused their power at an early period, in the provinces as well as at Rome itself; and Livy (XLV.18) says, "ubi publicanus est, ibi aut jus publicum vanum, aut libertas sociis nulla" (cf. Liv. XXV.3, 4).

Nobody but a Roman citizen was allowed to become a member of a company of publicani; freedmen and slaves were excluded (Pseudo-Ascon. in Divinat. p113; Cic. c. Verr. III.39). No Roman magistrate however, or governor of a province, was allowed to take any share whatever in a company of publicani (Cic. c. Verr. III.57), a regulation which was chiefly intended as a protection against the oppression of the provincials. During the later period of the empire various changes were introduced in the farming of the public revenues. Although it was, on the whole, a rule that no person should be compelled to take any share in a company of publicani, yet such cases sometimes occurred (Burmann, Vectig. Pop. Rom. p138, &c.). From the time of Constantine the leases of the publicani were generally not longer than for three years (Cod. 4 tit. 61 s.4). Several parts of the revenue which had before been let to publicani, were now raised by especial officers appointed by the emperors (Burmann, l.c. p141, &c.).

All the persons hitherto mentioned as members of these companies, whether they held any office in such a company or not, and merely contributed their shares and received their portions of the profit (Cic. ad Att. I.19; Nepos, Att. 6), did not themselves take any part in the actual levying or collecting of the taxes in the provinces. This part of the business was performed by an inferior class of men, who were said operas publicanis dare, or esse in operis societatis (Val. Max. VI.9 §8; Cic. c. Verr. III.41, ad Fam. XIII.19; cf. c. Verr. II.70, pro Planc. 19). They were engaged by the publicani, and consisted of freedmen as well as slaves, Romans as well as provincials (Cic. c. Verr. II.77, de Prov. Cons. 5). This body of men is called familia publicanorum, and comprehended, according to the praetor's edict (Dig. 39 tit. 4 s.1), all persons who assisted the publicani in collecting the vectigal. Various laws were enacted in the course of time, which were partly intended to support the servants of the publicani in the performance of their duty, and partly to prevent them from acts of oppression (see Dig. 39 tit. 4: De Publicanis et vectigalib. et commissis; Gaius, IV.28).

The separate branches of the public revenue in the provinces (decumae, portoria, scriptura, and the revenues from the mines and saltworks) were mostly leased to separate companies of publicani; whence they were distinguished by names derived from that particular branch which they had taken in farm; e.g. decumani, pecuarii or scripturarii, salinarii or mancipes salinarum, &c. (Pseudo-Ascon. l.c.; cf. Decumae, Portorium, Salinae, Scriptura.) On some occasions, however, one company of publicani farmed two or more branches at once; thus we have an instance of a societas farming the portorium and the scriptura at the same time (Cic. c. Verr. II.70). The commentator, who goes by the name of Asconius, asserts that the portitores were publicani who farmed the portorium; but from all the passages where they are mentioned in ancient writers, it is beyond all doubt that the portitores were not publicani properly so called, but only their servants engaged in examining the goods imported or exported, and levying the custom-duties upon them. They belonged to the same class as the publicans of the New Testament (St. Luke, v.27, 29). Respecting the impudent p974way in which these inferior officers sometimes behaved towards travellers and merchants, see Plaut. Menaech. I.2.5, &c.; Cic. ad Quint. Fr. I.1; Plut. de Curiosit. p518E (cf. Burmann, de Vectig. c. 9).


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