PUBLICANI, literally men employed " in connexion with the revenue, " (publicum, from populus, people), or possibly " in the public service," the name given in ancient Rome to a body of men who either hired state property or monopolies for a certain period, during which they could farm such property to their own profit, or bought of the state for a fixed sum the right to farm for a term of years the taxes due to the treasury from the public land in Italy (see Agrarian Laws) or the land held by Roman subjects in the provinces. In very 'early times the senate entrusted to officials appointed for the purpose the control of the sale of salt (Livy ii. 9); and it was a natural development from this that the state, instead of appointing officials to manage its monopolies, should let out those monopolies to individuals. A regular system was soon established by which the censor, who held office every fifth year, placed all the sources of public revenue in the hands of certain individuals or companies, who on payment of a fixed sum into the treasury, or on giving adequate security for such payment, received the right to make what profit they could out of the revenues during the five years that should elapse before the next censorship. The assignment was made to the highest bidder at a public auction held by the censor. The same system was applied to the public works, the publicanus (or company) in this case being paid a certain sum, in return for which he took entire charge of a certain department of the public works, and winning his appointment by making the lowest tender. That this system was well established at the time of the Second Punic War is assumed in Livy's account of the various offers made by the wealthier class of citizens to relieve the exhausted treasury after the battle of Cannae. On the one hand we have companies offering a price for branches of the revenue which was calculated rather to meet the needs of the state than to ensure any profit for themselves (Livy xxiii. 49). On the other hand individuals are represented as undertaking the management of public works on the understanding that they will expect no payment until the conclusion of the war (ibid. xxiv. 18).
In very early times the publicani may have been men closely connected with the government. But since wealth was a necessary qualification for the post, and wealth at Rome became more and more confined to the commercial class. the publicani became identical with the leading representatives of the class of capitalists and traders. This class was always distinct at Rome from the hereditary nobilty which monopolized the government of the state, and members of the senatorial class were excluded from it by definite enactment (see Senate). Although common interest was strong enough to secure for the government in time of external danger the loyal support of the commercial class, yet after the close of the great wars a market hostility grew up between it and the government.
The extension of the Roman system of tax-farming to the provinces did not at first increase the importance of the publicani in Italy; for in the earlier provinces, in which the collection of the revenues was put up to auction in the province itself, the publicani were generally natives. But C. Gracchus, who carried a law that the taxes of the new province of Asia should be put up to auction by the censor in Rome, gave to the Roman capitalists an opportunity of greatly extending their financial operations and thus in a short time of securing important political powers. It was in their capacity of publicani in the wealthiest provinces that the capitalist or equestrian judices (see Equites) became a menace to the provincial governors who represented the senatorial power. Cicero often applies the name publicani to the whole order; and on the various occasions when the demands of the equestrian party determined the policy of the state we can clearly trace the interests of the publicani, who were involved in an infinite number of commercial and financial transactions in the provinces, as the motive of its action. Thus the cruel fate of the Roman business men in Cirta led the capitalist class to force the Jugurthine War upon the senate in 112 B.C.; the disorganization of Asiatic commerce by the pirates led the same party to support the proposal to confer extraordinary powers on Pompey in 67 B.C.; and the rigour of the senate in opposing any relaxation of the burdensome contract made by the tax-farmers of Asia in 60 B.C. led to that estrangement between the senate and the capitalist class which enabled the democratic party to work its will and pave the way for the principate.
The companies of publicani continued some of their operations in the provinces under the early principate, but they lost many of their opportunities of oppression and embezzlement. We hear of a vigorous attempt made by Nero to suppress their unjust exactions, and they appear to have been kept under much closer supervision.
The term publicanus was applied at this time, and probably earlier, to the subordinate officials employed by the companies of publicani for the actual collection of the revenue, and thus acquired the general sense of “tax-collector,” even in provinces where the system of tax-farming by contract with societies of publicani was not in existence. (A. M. Cl.)