publican [Lat., = state employee], in ancient Rome, man who was employed by the state government under contract. As early as c.200 B.C. there was a class of men in Rome accustomed to undertaking contracts involving public works and tax collecting; the tax collectors made the most profit. The publicans were usually equites, or capitalists. In the Gospels—which showed the general detestation, particularly in Asia Minor, Syria, and Palestine, in which the publicans were held—the publicans mentioned were tax collectors. From the 1st cent. A.D. the abuses of the publicans began to be corrected, and by the end of the 2d cent. the publicans as a group had disappeared.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.