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c.1200, "tax-gatherer," from Old French publician (12c.), from Latin publicanus "a tax collector," noun use of an adjective, "pertaining to public revenue," from publicum "public revenue," noun use of neuter of publicus (see public (adj.)). Original sense in Matt. xviii:17, etc.; meaning "keeper of a pub" first recorded 1728, from public (house) + -an.
one who farmed the taxes (e.g., Zacchaeus, Luke 19:2) to be levied from a town or district, and thus undertook to pay to the supreme government a certain amount. In order to collect the taxes, the publicans employed subordinates (5:27; 15:1; 18:10), who, for their own ends, were often guilty of extortion and peculation. In New Testament times these taxes were paid to the Romans, and hence were regarded by the Jews as a very heavy burden, and hence also the collectors of taxes, who were frequently Jews, were hated, and were usually spoken of in very opprobrious terms. Jesus was accused of being a "friend of publicans and sinners" (Luke 7:34).
ancient Roman public contractor, who erected or maintained public buildings, supplied armies overseas, or collected certain taxes, particularly those supplying fluctuating amounts of revenue to the state (e.g., tithes and customs). The system for letting contracts was well established by the 3rd century BC: at Rome they were normally let for five years at auctions by the censor; in Sicily they were annually let by the governor. In order to have sufficient security, publicans formed partnerships and companies (societates publicanorum) under officials known as magisters, at Rome. The publicans, primarily members of the equestrian order (equites), gained significant power in the provinces and in Rome when equestrians became jurors in the court of extortion, which investigated the activities of provincial governors (122 BC). Under the early empire (after 27 BC) the publicans' business was curtailed; they were more tightly controlled, and the government forced them to accept unprofitable contracts. The system fell into disuse in the late empire.