We’re all familiar with the story of cute little Zacchaeus the tax-collector. This is often told to little children (and adults even) with a measure of sentimentality. We are also familiar with the stories of Jesus eating with tax-collectors etc. Well, apparently Zacchaeus and his tax-collecting friends weren’t so cute. In his book The Arrogance of Nations author Neil Elliott writes that the brutality of Roman tax-collectors was well known throughout the Roman Empire. The policies of violence and oppression were systemic, a fact cheerfully celebrated by those in charge. Nero is said to have told a newly appointed provincial governor (around the time Romans was written), “You know my needs. See to it no one is left with anything!”
The Romans would methodologically exploit the riches of a conquered people leaving them with almost nothing, often driving peasants to attempts of suicide. Elliott goes on to note that the Romans “had intentionally appointed as tax-gatherers the most ruthless of men, brimful of inhumanity, and put into their hands resources for overreaching.” Their own “natural inhumanity” was magnified by the immunity they received from their masters:
“The results were appalling. The tax agents sought to extract impossible burdens from the wretchedly poor through mass kidnappings, public torture and executions of family members, even holding for ransom the bodies of murdered relatives on threat of mutilating them savagely.”
Try explaining that to a bunch of Sunday school children.