You are here

The publicani during the Roman Empire: the political economy of public contracts

Charles Bartlett

Harvard University

This paper disagrees with a prevailing account of the publicani during the early to high Empire, as reduced in power, relegated to provincial tax collection, and increasingly at odds with the imperial state. It argues that instead we should understand the publicani both as providing indispensable services throughout the empire and generating sizeable earnings in the process, and as legally protected in their position.

Badian examined the wealth and power of the publicani, or those who formed the societates publicanorum, during the Roman Republic, and demonstrated how increasingly from the end of the 3rd century BCE, these companies were able to parlay their wealth and social connections to win lucrative public contracts, most notably for the collection of taxes (Badian). Through the fulfillment of these contracts, which concerned a range of public functions, the publicani amassed even more wealth and influence. In addition to showing the reach of these companies, Badian also helpfully nuanced the traditional narrative, which held that these unscrupulous men often mistreated inhabitants of the provinces to the point that the Roman state had to intervene to protect the rights of the locals against undue abuse, by analyzing the complex relationship that these companies had with the senatorial class and with provincial magistrates. Other scholars have built on Badian’s call to move beyond class antagonism when considering the relation between the publicani and a monolithic “state,” incorporating the acknowledgement that, for instance, senatorial and/or imperial rhetoric might not match reality when taxes, and therefore administrative politics, are at issue (e.g., Rathbone).

Still, the misdeeds of the publicani are most often cited as the reason why their activities were, supposedly, increasingly curtailed during the first centuries of the Empire, until, somewhat paradoxically if we follow this argument, their operations were limited to the collection of certain taxes (most prominently Malmendier). The publicani of this period have not attracted as much attention, but it has been argued that from Sulla through Trajan, the powers of the publicani were increasingly restricted and their support from the state evacuated until they faded into irrelevance.

Notwithstanding this view’s complete disregard for the tremendous differences in conceptions of political institutions and of social participation and inter-relation, among much else, of the rulers during this period, the picture of the publicani as a group withering into non-existence is incorrect. In this paper, I examine sources from the 1st century BCE through the 3rd century CE to argue that the publicani were still a powerful group until well into the 3rd century CE, and that we should understand imperial legislation as guaranteeing a position for them, as often as restricting their operations. In addition to Digest 39.4, whose texts date from across this period, the Customs law of Asia is crucial in the consideration of our question. As do the Digest texts, this law, which was promulgated in 62 CE but contains clauses that date back to 75 BCE and many intervening years as well, shows not only that the state guaranteed the position of the publicani in important ways, but that their interests likely extended beyond tax collection to include other jobs performed during the Republic. I suggest that the differing generic conventions and tropes of our few canonical literary sources ensure an incomplete picture of the operations of the publicani, and that we must also include epigraphic and juristic material. By doing so, we can see not only that the publicani continued to perform important functions well past the beginning of the Principate, but also how they might have dramatically influenced imperial policy.

Session/Panel Title

Money, Markets, Land, and Contracts

Session/Paper Number


© 2020, Society for Classical Studies Privacy Policy