Matthew at the Toll Gate-Part 4

Customs Post

The King James Version translation of the calling of Matthew by Jesus uses the word toll gate or customs gate for the place at which Matthew was called.

So, what was a customs post? How much did it collect in customs duties? Who had to pay such customs duties? How did the customs post function? How was a customs post staffed?

First, a customs post was called a portorium in Latin. The customs duty tax was known as tetarte or portoria.

The tax collector, or technically the customs officer, was a publicani, with the special name of portitores.

Publicani were persons under contract to the state. Publicani could contract to supply food, beef, grains, clothing etc. to the legions, or they could contract their services, i.e. collect the taxes. The publicani as a tax collector would pay the tax amount to Rome and then collect the taxes to repay themselves. Thus, the tax collectors viewed themselves as having lent money to the Empire and the collection of the taxes was merely recouping their loan with interest in the collection of the taxes.

Capernaum was on the border, as we have noted, the Jewish tetrarchy of Herod Antipas to the west (in which Capernaum was located) and the predominantly Gentile tetrarchy of Herod Philip to the east. We face squarely the issue of what tetarte a trade caravan would have faced at the portorium at Capernaum.

NB: Eventually, after the death of Herod the Great, his kingdom was divided between three of Herod’s sons:

  • Archelaus, his son by his fourth wife, Malthace, the Samaritan, received the lion’s share of the kingdom; Idumaea, Judea, and Samaria, and the title of Ethnarch (“ruler of the people”; in this case, the Jews, Samaritans, and Idumeans).
  • Herod Antipas, Archelaus’ brother, became Tetrarch of Galilee and Perea.
  • Philip I, Herod’s son by his fifth wife Cleopatra of Jerusalem, became Tetrarch of the northern part of Herod’s kingdom. St. Luke the Evangelist lists Philip’s territories as Itura and Trachonitis: Josephus gives his territories variously as Batanea, Gaulantis, Trachonitis and Paneas ( Antiquities XVII, 8 : 1) and Batanea, Trachonitis, Auranitis, and “a certain part of what is called the House of Zenodorus” (Ant XVII, 11 : 4). A number of these names refer to the same places, found now in modern-day Syria and Lebanon.If this was merely an internal border, then the tetarte would have varied in amount from 1 to 5 percent, often 2.5 percent. However, if this was viewed as an external border, then the amount would have been higher, much higher, at 12.5 percent or even 25 percent.What are some of the goods, luxury goods, which would have been in a caravan to be subject to customs?
  • On what was the tetarte collected? As regards the articles subject to an import duty, it may be stated in general terms, that all commodities, including slaves, which were imported by merchants for the purpose of selling them again, were subject to the portorium; whereas things which a person brought with him for his own use, were exempted from it. Many things, however, which belonged more to the luxuries than to the necessities of life, such as eunuchs and handsome youths, had to pay an import duty, even though they were imported by persons for their own use.
  1. The Chinese lacquerware
  2. Indian ivory carvings were designed to be attached to wooden furniture
  3. Finished objets d’art, such as bronze statuettes and plaster casts to be used in the manufacture of metal vessels
  4. Glassware vessels from port sites connected to the Indian Ocean trade. [There are cut-glass vessels, mold-blown glass, glass with faceted decorations, colored enameled vessels and vessels with applied molded relief decoration, even bowls of millefiori or mosaic glass. There are pieces in some creative and very appealing shapes, including multi-colored flasks in the shape of fish and boats.]
  5. The finely painted glass beakers, with scenes of people and animals in bright colors, carry some typically Egyptian images, such as the goddess Isis, and scenes of the date harvest. Most famously, the painting on one vase depicts three boats and a tower surmounted by a human figure flanked by two tritons. This was immediately identified as the pharos or lighthouse of Alexandria, one of the wonders of the ancient world. In addition to Egyptian-themed imagery on some of the glass vases, there are also items made of Egyptian materials, including vessels of alabaster and of porphyry, mined in the Roman period in the Eastern Desert, and bronze statuettes of quintessentially Graeco-Roman Egyptian gods (Harpokrates/Horus the Child; Herakles.
  6. Silks
  7. Spices
  8. Salted Fish!

More next week on customs!

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