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PUBLICA´NI The name was applied to the farmers-general of the Roman revenues; the word publicum denotes both state revenue and state service (Dig. 39, 4, 1; Tac. Ann. 13.51; Livy, 23.49, 1), and publicani, which is derived from it, combines both these ideas, in its meaning of persons who served the state in the collection of its revenues. The mode of collection is shown further by the definition of publicani in the Digest as “contractors for the public vectigalia” (Dig. 39, 4, 12). From a very early period the Roman state employed a peculiar mode of getting in a very large amount of its revenues. It was a system of indirect collection by means of middlemen, a class of individuals intermediate between the government itself and the subjects of governmental taxation, Such a system was probably employed for the collection of the old port-dues of Ostia on goods exposed for sale (promercale), and certainly for the working of the salt monopoly, which originated as early as the year 508 B.C. (Livy, 2.9, 6). The system was simply that of the purchase or lease by a publicanus of a prospective source of revenue, which he farmed at his own risk and for his own profit. This was the general principle, as illustrated by all the sources of revenue to which the system was applied; but its application was different, as the sources of revenue themselves differed; and we can distinguish two methods of tax-farming, which were regarded as distinct both in law and in fact. In one of these the publicanus is not directly employed in working the source of revenue, in the other he is; in the one case, therefore, the publicanus is not the possessor or occupant of the land, or other source of wealth, from which the revenue is derived: in the other case the possessor and publicanus are identical. It is only to the first of these two classes of tax-farmers--to those, that is, who are regarded as collecting vectigal from possessores other than themselves--that the name publicanus is strictly applied; the latter class are regarded in law not as publicani, but as publicanorum loco (Dig. 39, 4, 12, 13), although, in the current literature of Rome, they were, equally with the former class, called publicani.

It will be more convenient to treat the latter class of publicani first; their relations to the state were simpler, and their sphere of action more limited. To this class belong the revenue-farmers who worked certain fixed sources of wealth, such as mines, salt-works, fisheries and the like, which belonged wholly to the state, and which the state, for purposes of revenue, leased directly to the publicanus as a contractor. The publicanus is, in this case, a contractor (conductor) for supplying a fixed revenue to the state from such property. The terms of his contract are fixed by a lex censoria made with the censor as the representative of the state; and the lex censoria, besides specifying the revenue that the state requires him to pay, also states certain conditions under which the contract is to be undertaken. To this class of fixed sources of revenue directly contracted for by the publicanus belong fisheries (Dig. 43, 14, 7), amongst which the right of fishing in the Lucrine lake was a monopoly vested in a publicanus; salt-works, perhaps the oldest of this; class at Rome (Livy, 2.9, 6; Dig. 50, 16, 17), [p. 2.521]the monopoly of which was continued down to a very late period of the Empire [SALINAE]; mines, in connexion with which we find certain conditions stated in the lex censoria, as, for instance, that not more than five hundred workmen should be employed in the gold mines of Vercellae (Pliny, Plin. Nat. 33.78) by the contractor who worked them; and forest-land (silva caedua), which was also let to a contractor who paid a fixed revenue to the state. These were all in the nature of state monoplies; either wholly so, as in the case of the mines and saltworks, or partially, as in the case of certain fisheries retained by the state; while new monopolies might be artificially created, as were the quarries in Crete, by forbidding the exportation of such goods to any one but the government contractor (Dig. 39, 4, 15). The reason of their being worked by this class of middlemen can only be found in the incapacity of the Roman government, as it was constituted, to work them for itself. The rapid succession of magistrates and the singular absence of permanent officials at Rome accounts for its putting such sources of wealth into the hands of publicani, to the equal injury of the consumer and loss of the state. Before the powers of the senate were firmly established and distinctly recognised there was no really permanent administrative body in Rome; and when the powers of the senate were established, the system of middlemen was found established too. But this system of direct farming was not applied to remunerative monopolies only; it was applied, in certain exceptional cases, to Roman domainland. The only land in Italy believed to have been so dealt with was the Campanian land, which, for this reason, was specially exempted from the agrarian legislation of the Gracchi (Cic. de leg. Agr. 2.2. 9, 81; ad Att. 2.16, 1). Certain lands in the provinces, which had been royal domains of the kings whom Rome had either conquered or supplanted, were also dealt with in this way; such were the royal domainlands in Bithynia, the lands of Attalus in the Chersonnese, those which had been the private property of the Macedonian kings Philip and Perseus, and which were, in Cicero's time, a censoribus locati to the publicani (Cic. de leg. Agr. 2.19, 50); in the same way certain portions of confiscated territory were leased to conductores, among which we find mentioned the territory round Corinth (ib. 2.19, 51).

But, as a whole, we find the public land of Rome (ager publicus) dealt with in quite a different manner by the state. The greater part of the land over which the Roman state claimed dominion was either tilled land (ager) or pasture (silva pascua, saltus, Dig. 50, 16, 30; Varro, L. L. 5, 36). As such it was enjoyed, if tilled land, by the possessor; if pasture land, by the pastor: but the state makes no fixed bargain with either of these, it only tolerates them, and the possessor in this case is not the publicanus. The publicanus is the man who has a right to collect vectigal (ἀποφορά, App. Civ. Bell. 1.7; Plut. TG 8) from the person who uses the land. The revenue to be paid is determined by the lex dicta, under which the censor sold the right to the publicanus (Lex Agraria, § 85, ex lege dictâ, quam censores deixerunt, publicano dare oportuit). The conditions of sale with the publicanus obviously determine what the possessor or pastor has to pay. The possessor according to Appian, paid one-tenth of the produce of sown land, one-fifth of the produce of planted (Bell. Civ. 1.7), although the vectigal actually collected seems to have been in most cases less. The pastor paid a vectigal, which in this case was called scriptura (Festus, s. v. scriptuarius ager). The relations between the publicanus and the occupants of the land were regulated by the lex dicta of the censor. The third great class of revenues collected in this manner were the custom-dues (portoria), which were similarly leased to the publicanus by the censor, who fixed the conditions under which they were to be collected.

A very great extension was given to the system of tax-farming by the adoption of this method in provincial administration. The first province to which the system was directly applied was the province of Asia. In Sicily and Sardinia it had been found already in force on the Roman occupation, and by the Lex Sempronia (C. Gracchi) this method of raising revenues, with a nearer approximation to the Italian system, was applied to Asia (C. Gracch. ap. Gel. 11.10; Cic. in Verr. 3.6, 12-14). The theory which this system implied was that most of the provincial land was ager publicus, and that the dominium had therefore passed to the Roman people; that its occupiers were only possessores, and should therefore pay the customary revenues, the decumae and scriptura on, the land, as well as the portoria, all included i: under the generic name vectigal (Cic. pro lege Alan. 6, 15), which were paid in Italy [see PROVINCIA]. While, however, in Sicily the existing Lex Hieronica was adhered to, and the tenths of the soil (decumae) were sold in Sicily itself (Cic. in Verr. 2.25, 63; 2.60, 147; 3.7, 16), Asia was subject to a lex venditionis, which enjoined that the Asiatic taxes should be put up for sale for the province as a whole and in Rome (in Verr. 3.6, 14).

For the collection of such provincial taxes the publicani made a fixed contract with the state, and then farmed the taxes at their own risk (Cic. ad Quint. Fr. 1.1, 11; ad Att. 5.13, 1); sometimes they over-estimated the resources of the province, with the result that they farmed them at a loss (Cic. ad Att. 1.17, 9; 2.1, 8). The connexion of the publicani with the provinces, especially with that of Asia, was much closer than that of being merely its tax-farmers. They invested their money largely in the province (Cic. de leg. Man. 7, 17), and themselves carried on business as negotiatores there (Id. ib. 7, 18). This double character of public contractors and private investors gave them an opportunity for unfair exactions. The provincials were often in arrears with the publicani, either from bad years or the peculations of their own magistrates (Cic. Att. 6.2, 5), and would have to borrow from these same publicani in their character of bankers. Another source of unfair dealing was the interest provincial governors sometimes had in these exactions. Interference with the customary modes of collection might be sanctioned, and more or less legalised by the governor's edictum perpetuum. Thus Verres' edicts in Sicily were altogether in favour of the tax-farmers (Cic. in Verr. 3.10, [p. 2.522]24), and he is accused by Cicero of sharing the profits with the decumani; and although it was illegal, or at least considered highly improper, for a Roman governor or magistrate to be a member of a society of publicani (ib. 3.56, 130), yet, by collusion with a decumanus, and with the large powers a governor had of making new rules in his edict, indirect interference and profit were easily possible (ib. 3.30, 71). In Asia we know that considerable interference with the conditions of the lex dicta was permitted, nominally for the convenience of both parties (Cic. ad Quint. Fr. i. 1, 12), and with this permission it is clear how the publicani could increase their exactions, when backed up by the representative of Roman authority in the province. Instances of what the additional charges of a provincial publicanus might be are given by Cicero (in Verr. 3.78, 181). In this case there were charges made for the examination of the corn-dues (pro spectatione), for discount on foreign money (pro collybo), for writing materials and stamp (pro cerario), four per cent. (binae quinquagesimae) for the secretary, and six per cent. (ternae quinquagesimae) for an additional present to the collector. The difficulty of a Roman governor was to be in favour both with the publicani and the provincials at once (Cic. ad Quint. Fr. 1.1, 12); Cicero boasts to have effected this as proconsul of Cilicia (ad Att. 6.25), and remarks how much easier matters were made for him, on his arrival in the province, by the fact of the arrangements between the publicani and the provincials having been already concluded (ad Att. 5.13, 1). Other injuries were inflicted, without the cognisance of the publicani themselves, by the lower officials employed for the actual work of collection, especially in the case of the portoria (Dig. 39, 4, 12; Cic. ad Quint. Fr. 1.1, 11).

With the Empire came a great restriction of the operations of the publicani. Tax-farming as a general mode of raising provincial revenue had ceased [PROVINCIA], and private enterprise in the working of monopolies was also largely restricted (Suet. Tib. 49), But publicani are still found employed for a great many public purposes in the reign of Tiberius; for the working of the publici fructus, such as mines, forests and the like, and for the supply of corn to the army (Tac. Ann. 4.6; 13.51). They still, in Nero's time, collected the portoria (ib. 13.50); and we find, in much later inscriptions, the conductores mentioned by the side of the procuratores, for the collection of different sorts of revenue from the same province (Henzen, 6648, 6650). But they were, from this time, subject to much greater scrutiny than formerly. Nero issued an edict that the laws which regulated their several contracts should be formally published, and increased the powers of the praetors at Rome and the governors of the provinces, of dealing summarily with such matters (Tac. l.c.). The title in the Digest that treats of the publicani (Dig. 39, tit. 4, De publicanis et vectigalibus et commzissis) shows us a number of laws made by later emperors on the subject, the object of most of them being to restrain the illegal exactions of the publicani: as, for instance, that the penalty for illegal claims was double the amount so exacted; or, if force had been used, quadruple (Dig. 39, 4, 9, 15); and that the publicanus was to be held responsible for the misdeeds of his slaves who were employed in collecting the revenue (ib. 39, 4, 12, 1).

From the earliest times we find that the publicani do not undertake their contracts singly; the extent of the undertakings, and the amount of security which the state required them to deposit, would have rendered it impossible. They worked in companies (societates publicanorum or socii publicorum vectigalium), which were composed of shareholders (socii), who might have a greater or smaller share in the concern (partes or particulae). These companies had a legal representative (manceps) who acted for the societas as its formal head (princeps publicanorum, Ps.-Asc. in Div. p. 113). The manceps bid for the contract, agreed to the terms imposed by the censor, saw that security (praedia) was deposited by the sureties (praedes or fidejussores, Ps.-Asc. in Verrin. p. 196; Dig. 39, 4, 9), and undertook the risk of the contract on behalf of the company. Polybius (6.17) mentions three stages in the business of a company of publicani: the bidding for the contract, the depositing of the security, and finally the handing of the vectigal due into the treasury. He mentions the manceps and praedes as distinct persons; they were very often so in fact, but the manceps himself was called praes, inasmuch as he was equally responsible for the fulfilment of the contract (Festus, s. v. manceps). The word lustrum, primarily denoting the ceremonies attending the taking of the census, was applied to the period during which the contract ran (Cic. Att. 6.2, 5), which was usually a period of five years. Fresh contracts were made at the close of each lustrum, and open competition invited; the contract was purely voluntary,--no state contract was compulsory; and consequently any company that outbid all the others, when the vectigalia were put up to auction, might undertake their collection, provided it could find sufficient security (Dig. 39, 4, 9, 1, 2). The conditions of the contract were contained in a lex censoria or lex dicta, of which frequent mention has been made, and which was also called a lex locationis (Lex Julia Municip. 50.72). Occasionally, however, the people or senate modified the terms fixed by the census, in the interest of the publicani (Plut. Flam. 19; Plb. 6.17; Liv. 39.44), and in some cases even the tribunes of the people interfered to effect this object (Liv. 43.16). Each company of publicani had a central manager and banker at Rome, called magister societatis; these magistri were appointed annually, and handed over their accounts at the end of each year to their successors (Cic. Att. 5.1. 6, 3; in Verr. 2.74, 182). They had under them a staff of subordinate officials who were said operas dare publicanis or in operis esse publicanorum (Cic. Fam. 13.6. 5), and who were also called the familia of the publicani, this term including not only slaves, but all subordinate officials (Dig. 39, 4, 1). Where the business of the publicani was extended to the provinces, they had a deputy in each local centre called pro magistro, with a corresponding familia under his direction (Cic. in Verr. 2.70, 171; de leg. Man. 6.16). There was an organised system of communication kept up between the provinces [p. 2.523]and Rome by means of letter-carriers (tabellarii), of whose services general correspondents frequently availed themselves (Cic. Att. 5.1. 5, 3; Ter. Phorm. 1.2, 100). The companies of publicani received their names from the respective dues it was their business to collect. Thus the collectors of decumae were called decumani; they ranked highest, and are described by Cicero as “the chiefs and, as it were, senate of the publicani” (in Verr. 2.71, 173), The collectors of scriptura were called pecuarii, scriptuarii or pascuarii (Ps.-Asc. in Divin. p. 113); and the contractors for salt-works and the collectors of portoria were termed socii salarii and portitores respectively. There is, however, some doubt about the meaning of portitores. The Pseudo-Asconius classes them with pascuarii as a division of the publicani (in Divin. p. 113); elsewhere they are spoken of as though they were the servants or lower officials of this branch of the publicani (Plaut. Asin. 1.3, 7; Cic. Off. 1, 42, and perhaps Cic. ad Quint. Fr. 1.1, 11). It is not, however, impossible to reconcile these two meanings, and to suppose that the staff (familia) of a certain company of tax-farmers might themselves be called by the name applicable to this company. Usually each company seems to have collected but one kind of revenue; but we find an instance in which two kinds, the portoria and the scriptura, were farmed by the same company (Cic. in Verr. 2.70, 171).

It only remains to touch briefly on the political position and importance of the publicani. They had always been the great capitalists of Rome, and whenever capital was needed for state purposes they were always to the front. As early as the Second Punic War we see them coming forward to offer their assistance, when the state was in pressing pecuniary difficulties; after the battle of Cannae (Liv. 24.18), and again in 215 B.C., when the Scipios wrote from Spain for supplies, which the state was unable to afford them (Liv. 23.48). As the representatives of capital, Cicero calls them the firmamentum ceterorum ordinum (pro leg. Man. 7, 17), and maintains that their claims should be primarily regarded in any act of state administration. Their political importance was heightened by the organisation of the capitalists of Rome as the body of Equites, probably brought about by C. Gracchus. In one respect this political organisation reacted on the administration of their provincial functions; for, between the times of C. Gracchus and Sulla (123 to 81 B.C.), the Equites formed the judicial body at Rome; and, as they consisted in great part of publicani, they had the power of approving, by their treatment of provincial governors accused of extortion, the regulations of these governors connected with the position of the provincial tax-farmers. In Cicero's letters < publicani is used almost indiscriminately with equites, to denote a political power in the state (Cic. Att. 1.1. 7, 9; 2.1, 8). Many political actions that had the most important consequences were brought about by a representation of their claims backed by their influence, as, for instance, the passing of the Manilian law (B.C. 66): and in one instance the neglect of the claims of the publicani was the cause of a breach between the equites and a the senatorial government (Cic. Att. 2.1, 8), that helped to accelerate the downfall of the Republic.


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  • Cross-references from this page (30):
    • Cicero, Letters to his Friends, 13.6.5
    • Cicero, Letters to Atticus, 1.2.1
    • Cicero, Letters to Atticus, 2.1
    • Cicero, Letters to Atticus, 2.8
    • Cicero, Letters to Atticus, 5.1.3
    • Cicero, Letters to Atticus, 6.2
    • Cicero, Letters to Atticus, 6.5
    • Polybius, Histories, 6.17
    • Cicero, Against Verres, 2.2.147
    • Cicero, Against Verres, 2.2.171
    • Cicero, Against Verres, 2.2.63
    • Cicero, Against Verres, 2.3.12
    • Cicero, Against Verres, 2.3.16
    • Cicero, On the Agrarian Law, 2.2.9
    • Cicero, On Pompey's Command, 7
    • Suetonius, Tiberius, 49
    • Tacitus, Annales, 13.51
    • Tacitus, Annales, 4.6
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 43, 16
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 39, 44
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 24, 18
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 23, 1
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 23, 48
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 23, 49
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 2, 6
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 2, 9
    • Cicero, De Officiis, 1
    • Gellius, Noctes Atticae, 11.10
    • Plutarch, Titus Flamininus, 19
    • Plutarch, Tiberius Gracchus, 8
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