In modern English, a publican is a keeper of a tavern, public house, or similar facility. However, the term originally referred to a tax collector in the Roman Empire; if you've ever wondered about the frequent mentions of “publicans” in the Bible, said publicans were actually participants in the Roman tax system, not cheerful tavern owners. The root Latin for both words is the same; it comes from publicus, for “public.”
In the Roman era, publicans collected taxes, tolls, and other revenues from the public as part of a contract tax system. Rather than dealing with tax collection itself, the Roman government issued contracts to people who would collect public revenue in exchange for a cut of the proceeds. Some publicans grew quite wealthy under this system, and by the first century CE, many people were criticizing the role of publicans, who could often be corrupt and greedy. By the second century CE, these publicans had largely vanished, in favor of other systems.
The term “publican” continued to be used to refer to tax gatherers in various parts of Europe until the 18th century, when the meaning of a keeper of a public house or “pub” for short began to emerge. In addition to managing a tavern, a publican might also run accommodations and provide other services, such as paid female companionship through a network of prostitutes. In the modern sense, the term is used exclusively to refer to the keeper of a pub, typically in Great Britain or Ireland.
In the pub culture of Ireland and Great Britain, the publican is an important figure. Most people have a local pub which they frequent on a regular basis, and publicans often become familiar with their frequent customers. A good publican keeps track of preferred beverages and the events in people's lives, much like a bartender in the United States. Publicans primarily offer an assortment of beers, although non-alcoholic beverages and spirits are often on offer as well, and some basic food may also be available.
Generally, the publican is the owner or manager of a pub or tavern, while staff may be known by various other titles. A good pub is a comfortable, friendly place with an agreeable publican who makes the experience enjoyable for all comers. It can also be a source for local news, as well as a place to watch sporting events or to enjoy a favorite type of beer.