Roman numerals

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Clock face of Big Ben with Roman numerals Big ben closeup.jpg
Clock face of Big Ben with Roman numerals

Roman numerals are a numeral system that originated in ancient Rome and remained the usual way of writing numbers throughout Europe well into the Late Middle Ages. Numbers in this system are represented by combinations of letters from the Latin alphabet. Modern usage employs seven symbols, each with a fixed integer value: [1]

Numeral system Writing system for expressing numbers

A numeral system is a writing system for expressing numbers; that is, a mathematical notation for representing numbers of a given set, using digits or other symbols in a consistent manner.

Ancient Rome History of Rome from the 8th-century BC to the 5th-century

In historiography, ancient Rome is Roman civilization from the founding of the Italian city of Rome in the 8th century BC to the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century AD, encompassing the Roman Kingdom, Roman Republic and Roman Empire until the fall of the western empire. The civilization began as an Italic settlement in the Italian Peninsula, conventionally founded in 753 BC, that grew into the city of Rome and which subsequently gave its name to the empire over which it ruled and to the widespread civilisation the empire developed. The Roman Empire expanded to become one of the largest empires in the ancient world, though still ruled from the city, with an estimated 50 to 90 million inhabitants ) and covering 5.0 million square kilometres at its height in AD 117.

Late Middle Ages Period of European history between 1250 and 1500 CE

The Late Middle Ages or Late Medieval Period was the period of European history lasting from 1250 to 1500 AD. The Late Middle Ages followed the High Middle Ages and preceded the onset of the early modern period.

Contents

Symbol I V X L C D M
Value1510501005001,000

The use of Roman numerals continued long after the decline of the Roman Empire. From the 14th century on, Roman numerals began to be replaced in most contexts by the more convenient Arabic numerals; however, this process was gradual, and the use of Roman numerals persists in some minor applications to this day.

Roman Empire Period of Imperial Rome following the Roman Republic (27 BC–476 AD)

The Roman Empire was the post-Roman Republic period of the ancient Roman civilization. Ruled by emperors, it had large territorial holdings around the Mediterranean Sea in Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, and the Caucasus. From the constitutional reforms of Augustus to the military anarchy of the third century, the Empire was a principate ruled from Italy, homeland of the Romans and metropole of the empire, with the city of Rome as capital. The Roman Empire was then ruled by multiple emperors and divided in a Western Roman Empire, based in Milan and later Ravenna, and an Eastern Roman Empire, based in Nicomedia and later Constantinople. Rome remained the nominal capital of both parts until 476 AD, when Odoacer deposed Romulus Augustus after capturing Ravenna and the Senate of Rome sent the imperial regalia to Constantinople. The fall of the Western Roman Empire to barbarian kings, along with the hellenization of the Eastern Roman Empire into the Byzantine Empire, is conventionally used to mark the end of Ancient Rome and the beginning of the Middle Ages.

Arabic numerals ten digits: 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, based on the Hindu–Arabic numeral system, the most common system for the symbolic representation of numbers in the world today

Arabic numerals are the ten digits: 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9. The term often implies a number written in the Hindu–Arabic numeral system, the most common system for the symbolic representation of numbers in the world today. However, it can also refer to the digits themselves, such as in the statement "octal numbers are written using Arabic numerals."

One place they are often seen is on clock faces. For instance, on the clock of Big Ben (designed in 1852), the hours from 1 to 12 are written as:

Clock face Part of a clock that displays the time

A clock face, or dial, is the part of an analog clock that displays the time through the use of a fixed-numbered dial or dials and moving hands. In its most basic form, recognized throughout the world, the periphery of the dial is numbered 1 through 12 indicating the hours in a 12-hour cycle, and a short hour hand makes two revolutions in a day. A long minute hand makes one revolution every hour. The face may also include a second hand, which makes one revolution per minute. The term is less commonly used for the time display on digital clocks and watches.

Big Ben Bell within the clock tower at the Palace of Westminster in London, England

Big Ben is the nickname for the Great Bell of the clock at the north end of the Palace of Westminster in London and is usually extended to refer to both the clock and the clock tower. The official name of the tower in which Big Ben is located was originally the Clock Tower, but it was renamed Elizabeth Tower in 2012 to mark the Diamond Jubilee of Elizabeth II.

I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX, X, XI, XII

The notations IV and IX can be read as "one before five" (4) and "one before ten" (9). On most Roman numeral clock faces, however, 4 is traditionally written as IIII. [2]

Other common uses include year numbers on monuments and buildings and copyright dates on the title screens of movies and television programs. MCM, signifying "a thousand, and a hundred less than another thousand", means 1900, so 1912 is written MCMXII. For this century, MM indicates 2000 - the current year is MMXIX.

Description

There is not, and never has been, an "official", "binding", or universally accepted standard for Roman numerals. Usage in ancient Rome varied greatly and remained somewhat inconsistent in medieval times and later. [3] The "rules" of the system as it is now applied have been established only by general usage over the centuries.

A "base 10" system

Roman numerals are essentially a decimal or "base 10" number system. Powers of ten – thousands, hundreds, tens and units – are written separately, from left to right, in that order. Different symbols are used for each power of ten, but a common pattern is used for each of them.

The underlying form of this pattern employs the symbols I and V (representing 1 and 5) as simple tally marks, to build the numbers from 1 to 9. Each marker for 1 (I) adds a unit value up to 5 (V), and is then added to (V) to make the numbers from 6 to 9. Finally the unit symbol for the next power completes a "finger count" sequence:

I, II, III, IIII, V, VI, VII, VIII, VIIII, X.

At some early time the Romans started to use the abbreviated forms IV ("one less than 5") and IX ("one less than 10") for IIII and VIIII, a convention that has been widely, although not universally, used ever since. [lower-alpha 1] This convention is called "subtractive" notation, [4] as opposed to the purely "additive" notation of IIII and VIIII. [5] Thus the numbers from 1 to 10 are generally written as

I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX, X. [6]

The multiples of 10, from 10 to 100, are written according to the same pattern, with X, L, and C taking the place of I, V, and X

X, XX, XXX, XL, L, LX, LXX, LXXX, XC, C.

Note that 40 is usually written XL ("10 less than 50") rather than XXXX, and 90 as XC ("10 less than 100") rather than LXXXX.

Similarly, the multiples of 100, 100 to 1000, are written as

C, CC, CCC, CD, D, DC, DCC, DCCC, CM, M.

where CD is to be read as "100 less than 500" (that is, 400), and CM as "100 less than 1000" (that is, 900).

Since the system has no standard symbols for 5,000 and 10,000, the full pattern cannot be extended to the multiples of 1000: restricting the range of "normal" Roman numerals to 1,000, 2,000 and 3,000:

M, MM, MMM.

A number containing several decimal places is represented, as in the Arabic system, by writing its power-of-ten parts — thousands, hundreds, tens and units — in sequence, from left to right, in descending order of value. For example:

Any missing place (represented by a zero in the Arabic equivalent) is omitted, as in Latin (and English) speech:

Roman numerals for large numbers are nowadays seen mainly in the form of year numbers, as in these examples:

The largest number that can be represented in this notation is 3,999 (MMMCMXCIX). [lower-alpha 2]

Use of additive notation

A typical clock face with Roman numerals in Bad Salzdetfurth, Germany BadSalzdetfurthBadenburgerStr060529.jpg
A typical clock face with Roman numerals in Bad Salzdetfurth, Germany

While subtractive notation for multiples of 4 (IV, XL, CD) has been prevalent since Roman times, additive notation (IIII, XXXX, [11] and CCCC [11] ) continued to be used, including in compound numbers like XXIIII, [12] LXXIIII, [13] and CCCCLXXXX. [14] The additive forms for 9, 90, and 900 (VIIII, [11] LXXXX, [15] and DCCCC [16] ) have also been used, although less frequently.

The two conventions could be mixed in the same document or inscription, even in the same numeral. On the numbered gates to the Colosseum, for instance, IIII is systematically used instead of IV, but subtractive notation is used for other digits; so that gate 44 is labelled XLIIII. [17] Isaac Asimov speculates that the use of IV, as the initial letters of "IVPITER" (the classical Latin spelling of the name of the Roman god Jupiter) may have been felt to have been impious in this context. [18]

Modern clock faces that use Roman numerals still usually employ IIII for four o'clock but IX for nine o'clock, a practice that goes back to very early clocks such as the Wells Cathedral clock of the late 14th century. [19] [20] [21] However, this is far from universal: for example, the clock on the Palace of Westminster tower, "Big Ben", uses a subtractive IV for 4 o'clock. [20]

An inscription on Admiralty Arch, London. The Roman numeral for 1910 is MDCCCCX, rather than the more usual MCMX AdmiraltyArchLondonCloseup.jpg
An inscription on Admiralty Arch, London. The Roman numeral for 1910 is MDCCCCX, rather than the more usual MCMX

Several monumental inscriptions created in the early 20th century use variant forms for "1900" (usually written MCM). These vary from MDCCCCX - a classical use of additive notation for MCMX (1910), as seen on Admiralty Arch, London, to the more unusual, if not unique MDCDIII for MCMIII (1903), on the north entrance to the Saint Louis Art Museum. [22]

Sometimes 5 and 50 have been written IIIII and XXXXX instead of V and L, and there are instances such as IIIIII and XXXXXX rather than VI or LX. [23] [24]

Irregular subtractive notation

Epitaph of centurion Marcus Caelius, showing "XIIX" Epitaph des Marcus Caelius.JPG
Epitaph of centurion Marcus Caelius, showing "XIIX"

The irregular use of subtractive notation, such as IIIXX for 17, [25] IIXX for 18, [26] IIIC for 97, [27] IIC for 98, [28] [29] and IC for 99 [30] were occasionally used in more modern times. A possible explanation is that the word for 18 in Latin was duodeviginti, literally "two from twenty". Similarly, the words for 98 and 99 were duodecentum (two from hundred) and undecentum (one from hundred), respectively. [31] These ways of saying 18, 98 and 99 have been attributed to influence from the Etruscans, who would say ciem zaθrum (three from twenty) for 17, eslem zaθrum (two from twenty) for 18 and θunem zaθrum (one from twenty) for 19. [32] Apparently, at least one ancient stonecutter mistakenly thought that the IIXX of "22nd Legion" stood for 18, and "corrected" it to XVIII. [33] However, the explanation does not seem to apply to IIIXX and IIIC, since the Latin words for 17 and 97 were septendecim (seven ten) and nonaginta septem (ninety seven), respectively.

Another example of irregular subtractive notation is the use of XIIX for 18, by officers of the XVIII Roman Legion to write their number. [34] [35] The notation appears prominently on the cenotaph of their senior centurion Marcus Caelius (c.45 BC – AD 9). There does not seem to be a linguistic explanation for this use, although it is one stroke shorter than XVIII.

Rare variants

Excerpt from Bibliotheque Nationale de France. The Roman numeral for 500 isCV, instead of D Excerpt from BnF ms. 1433 fr., fol. 24r.png
Excerpt from Bibliotheque Nationale de France. The Roman numeral for 500 isCV, instead of D


Padlock used on the north gate of the Irish town of Athlone. "1613" in the date is rendered XVIXIII, (literally "16, 13") instead of MDCXIII Padlock, Athlone.jpg
Padlock used on the north gate of the Irish town of Athlone. "1613" in the date is rendered XVIXIII, (literally "16, 13") instead of MDCXIII

While the subtractive and additive notations seem to have been used interchangibly through history, some other Roman numerals have been occasionally observed that do not fit either system. Some of these variants do not seem to have been used outside specific contexts, and may have been regarded as errors even by contemporaries.

Origin of the system

The system as we use today is closely associated with the city of Rome and the Empire that it created. However, due to the scarcity of surviving examples, the origins of the system are obscure and there are several competing theories, largely conjectural.

Precedents

By the time the city-state of Rome was founded, the Mediterranean east of Italy had already known several advanced literate civilizations, such as the Ancient Egypt, Phoenicia, Minos, Mycenae and several others in Asia Minor and the Levant. These civilizations influenced the Romans directly or indirectly, such as in the alphabet (via the Etruscans).

The most obvious similarity between the Roman numerals and those older number systems is the use of 10 as the base, instead of 60 (as had been in use in Mesopotamia for a millennium) or 20. That choice, however, seems to have been made through most of Eurasia, including in India and China.

The old Egyptian system had a different non-phonetic symbol for each power of ten (so that, like the Romans, they did not need a symbol for zero). However, it repeated that symbol up to nine times to get the digits 1 to 9. The Egyptians had no separate symbols for 5, 50, etc. The symbol for 1 was a vertical stroke, and that for 10 was an inverted "U"; but higher powers were denoted by figurative hieroglyphs.

The use of separate symbols for 5, 50, 500 etc. was a feature of the old Greek number system, the Attic numerals. The additive notation for writing the digits 6-9 (as the digit 5 plus the digits 1-4) was also a feature of that system. However, the symbols of the latter were letters of the Greek alphabet taken from the names of those numbers ("Π" from ΠΕΝΤΕ for 5), "Δ" from ΔΕΚΑ for 10, "Η" for 100, etc. (the Greek word for 100 was however ἑκατόν, starting with E); or modified "Π" like "𐅄" for 50 an "𐅅" for 500.

The Attic numerals were later replaced in Greece by the classical Greek system, that also used letters to denote numbers, like the Romans, and a different set of letters for each power of 10. However, the similarities ended there. The Greek system (apparently borrowed from the late Egyptian Hieratic system) uses the first 9 letters of the alphabet to encode the units 1 to 9, then the next 9 letters for the tens 10 to 90, and similarly for the hundreds. (For this purpose an archaic alphabet was used which included additional letters not present in the classical Greek alphabet.)

Etruscan numerals

Rome was founded sometime between 850 and 750 BC. At the time, the region was inhabited by diverse populations speaking distinct languages. These included several Italic branches of the Indo-European family, as well as the Etruscans, a people of unknown origin who spoke an isolated language.

At that time, the Etruscans were the most advanced civilization in the region, and the ancient Romans themselves admitted that they inherited much of their knowledge and customs from them. Rome was located next to the southern edge of the Etruscan domain, which covered a large part of north-central Italy. Besides the Etruscans, the original population of Rome was allegedly drawn mainly from the Latins and the Sabinians, who were only two among the several Italic-speaking tribes in the peninsula.

The Roman numerals, in particular, are directly derived from the Etruscan number symbols: "𐌠", "𐌡", "𐌢", "𐌣", and "𐌟" for 1, 5, 10, 50, and 100 (They had more symbols for larger numbers, but it is unknown which symbol represents which number). As in the basic Roman system, the Etruscans wrote the symbols that added to the desired number, from higher to lower value. Thus the number 87, for example, would be written 50 + 10 + 10 + 10 + 5 + 1 + 1 = 𐌣𐌢𐌢𐌢𐌡𐌠𐌠 (this would appear as 𐌠𐌠𐌡𐌢𐌢𐌢𐌣 since Etruscan was written from right to left.) [40]

The symbols "𐌠" and "𐌡" resembled letters of the Etruscan alphabet, but "𐌢", "𐌣", and "𐌟" did not. The Etruscans used the subtractive notation, too, but not like the Romans. They wrote 17, 18, and 19 as "𐌠𐌠𐌠𐌢𐌢", "𐌠𐌠𐌢𐌢", and 𐌠𐌢𐌢, mirroring the way they spoke those numbers ("three from twenty", etc.); and similarly for 27, 28, 29, 37, 38, etc. However they did not write "𐌠𐌡" for 4 (or "𐌢𐌣" for 40), and wrote "𐌡𐌠𐌠", "𐌡𐌠𐌠𐌠" and "𐌡𐌠𐌠𐌠𐌠" for 7, 8, and 9, respectively. [40]

Early Roman numerals

The early Roman numerals for 1, 10, and 100 were the Etruscan ones: "I", "X", and "Ж". The symbols for 5 and 50 changed from Ʌ and "𐌣" to V and ↆ at some point. The latter had flattened to (an inverted T) by the time of Augustus, and soon afterwards became identified with the graphically similar letter L. [41]

The symbol for 100 was written variously as >I< or ƆIC, was then abbreviated to Ɔ or C, with C (which matched a Latin letter) finally winning out. It may have helped that C is the initial of centum, Latin for "hundred".[ citation needed ]

The numbers 500 and 1000 were denoted by V or X overlaid with a box or circle. Thus 500 was like a Ɔ superimposed on a Þ. It became D or Ð by the time of Augustus, under the graphic influence of the letter D. It was later identified as the letter D; an alternative symbol for "thousand" was a CIƆ, and half of a thousand or "five hundred" is the right half of the symbol, , and this may have been converted into D. [18]

The notation for 1000 was a circled or boxed X: Ⓧ, , , and by Augustinian times was partially identified with the Greek letter Φ phi . Over time, the symbol changed to Ψ and . The latter symbol further evolved into , then , and eventually changed to M under the influence of the Latin word mille "thousand". [41]

According to Paul Kayser, the basic numerical symbols were I, X, C and Φ (or ) and the intermediate ones were derived by taking half of those (half an X is V, half a C is L and half a Φ/⊕ is D). [42]

Use in the Middle Ages and Renaissance

Lower case, minuscule, letters were developed in the Middle Ages, well after the demise of the Western Roman Empire, and since that time lower-case versions of Roman numbers have also been commonly used: i, ii, iii, iv, and so on.

13th century example of iiij. Excerpt from BnF ms. 23112 fr., fol. 343v.png
13th century example of iiij.

Since the Middle Ages, a "j" has sometimes been substituted for the final "i" of a "lower-case" Roman numeral, such as "iij" for 3 or "vij" for 7. This "j" can be considered a swash variant of "i". The use of a final "j" is still used in medical prescriptions to prevent tampering with or misinterpretation of a number after it is written. [43] [44]

Numerals in documents and inscriptions from the Middle Ages sometimes include additional symbols, which today are called "medieval Roman numerals". Some simply substitute another letter for the standard one (such as "A" for "V", or "Q" for "D"), while others serve as abbreviations for compound numerals ("O" for "XI", or "F" for "XL"). Although they are still listed today in some dictionaries, they are long out of use. [45]

NumberMedieval
abbreviation
Notes and etymology
5AResembles an upside-down V. Also said to equal 500.
6Either from a ligature of VI, or from digamma (ϛ), the Greek numeral 6 (sometimes conflated with the stigma ligature). [41]
7S, ZPresumed abbreviation of septem, Latin for 7.
9.5X ̷Scribal abbreviation, an x with a slash through it. Likewise, IX ̷ represented 8.5
11OPresumed abbreviation of onze, French for 11.
40FPresumed abbreviation of English forty.
70SAlso could stand for 7, with the same derivation.
80R
90NPresumed abbreviation of nonaginta, Latin for 90. (Ambiguous with N for "nothing" (nihil)).
150YPossibly derived from the lowercase y's shape.
151KUnusual, origin unknown; also said to stand for 250. [46]
160TPossibly derived from Greek tetra, as 4 × 40 = 160.
200HCould also stand for 2 (see also 𐆙, the symbol for the dupondius). From a barring of two I's.
250E
300B
400P, G
500QRedundant with D; abbreviates quingenti, Latin for 500.
800ΩBorrowed from Gothic.
2000Z

Chronograms, messages with dates encoded into them, were popular during the Renaissance era. The chronogram would be a phrase containing the letters I, V, X, L, C, D, and M. By putting these letters together, the reader would obtain a number, usually indicating a particular year.

Modern use

By the 11th century, Arabic numerals had been introduced into Europe from al-Andalus, by way of Arab traders and arithmetic treatises. Roman numerals, however, proved very persistent, remaining in common use in the West well into the 14th and 15th centuries, even in accounting and other business records (where the actual calculations would have been made using an abacus). Replacement by their more convenient "Arabic" equivalents was quite gradual, and Roman numerals are still used today in certain contexts. A few examples of their current use are:

Spanish Real using IIII instead of IV as regnal number of Charles IV of Spain Carlos IV Coin.jpg
Spanish Real using IIII instead of IV as regnal number of Charles IV of Spain

Specific disciplines

Entrance to section LII (52) of the Colosseum, with numerals still visible Colosseum-Entrance LII.jpg
Entrance to section LII (52) of the Colosseum, with numerals still visible

In astronomy, the natural satellites or "moons" of the planets are traditionally designated by capital Roman numerals appended to the planet's name. For example, Titan's designation is Saturn  VI.

In chemistry, Roman numerals are often used to denote the groups of the periodic table. They are also used in the IUPAC nomenclature of inorganic chemistry, for the oxidation number of cations which can take on several different positive charges. They are also used for naming phases of polymorphic crystals, such as ice.

In education, school grades (in the sense of year-groups rather than test scores) are sometimes referred to by a Roman numeral; for example, "grade IX" is sometimes seen for "grade 9".

In entomology, the broods of the thirteen and seventeen year periodical cicadas are identified by Roman numerals.

In advanced mathematics (including trigonometry, statistics, and calculus), when a graph includes negative numbers, its quadrants are named using I, II, III, and IV. These quadrant names signify positive numbers on both axes, negative numbers on the X axis, negative numbers on both axes, and negative numbers on the Y axis, respectively. The use of Roman numerals to designate quadrants avoids confusion, since Arabic numerals are used for the actual data represented in the graph.

In military unit designation, Roman numerals are often used to distinguish between units at different levels. This reduces possible confusion, especially when viewing operational or strategic level maps. In particular, army corps are often numbered using Roman numerals (for example the American XVIII Airborne Corps or the WW2-era German III Panzerkorps) with Arabic numerals being used for divisions and armies.

In music, Roman numerals are used in several contexts:

In pharmacy, Roman numerals are used in some contexts, including S to denote "one half" and N to denote "zero" (See the sections below on "zero" and "fractions"). [49]

In photography, Roman numerals (with zero) are used to denote varying levels of brightness when using the Zone System.

In seismology, Roman numerals are used to designate degrees of the Mercalli intensity scale of earthquakes.

In sport the team containing the "top" players and representing a nation or province, a club or a school at the highest level in (say) rugby union is often called the "1st XV", while a lower-ranking cricket or American football team might be the "3rd XI".

In tarot, Roman numerals (with zero) are used to denote the cards of the Major Arcana.

In theology and biblical scholarship, the Septuagint is often referred to as LXX, as this translation of the Old Testament into Greek is named for the legendary number of its translators (septuaginta being Latin for "seventy").

Modern use in continental Europe

Some uses that are rare or never seen in English speaking countries may be relatively common in parts of continental Europe. For instance:

Capital or small capital Roman numerals are widely used in Romance languages to denote centuries, e.g. the French xviiie siècle [50] and the Spanish siglo XVIII mean "18th century". Slavic languages in and adjacent to Russia similarly favour Roman numerals (XVIII век). On the other hand, in Slavic languages in Central Europe, like most Germanic languages, one writes "18." (with a period) before the local word for "century".

Boris Yeltsin's signature, dated 10 November 1988. The month is specified by "XI" rather than "11". Yeltsin-authograph-1988.gif
Boris Yeltsin's signature, dated 10 November 1988. The month is specified by "XI" rather than "11".

Mixed Roman and Arabic numerals are sometimes used in numeric representations of dates (especially in formal letters and official documents, but also on tombstones). The month is written in Roman numerals, while the day is in Arabic numerals: "14.VI.1789" and "VI.14.1789" both refer unambiguously to 14 June 1789.

Business hours table on a shop window in Vilnius DarboLaikas.jpg
Business hours table on a shop window in Vilnius

Roman numerals are sometimes used to represent the days of the week in hours-of-operation signs displayed in windows or on doors of businesses, [51] and also sometimes in railway and bus timetables. Monday, taken as the first day of the week, is represented by I. Sunday is represented by VII. The hours of operation signs are tables composed of two columns where the left column is the day of the week in Roman numerals and the right column is a range of hours of operation from starting time to closing time. In the example case (left), the business opens from 10 am to 7 pm on weekdays, 10 AM to 5 pm on Saturdays and is closed on Sundays. Note that the listing uses 24-hour time.

Sign at 17.9 km on route SS4 Salaria, north of Rome S6002447 cropped.jpg
Sign at 17.9 km on route SS4 Salaria, north of Rome

Roman numerals may also be used for floor numbering. [52] [53] For instance, apartments in central Amsterdam are indicated as 138-III, with both an Arabic numeral (number of the block or house) and a Roman numeral (floor number). The apartment on the ground floor is indicated as 138-huis.

In Italy, where roads outside built-up areas have kilometre signs, major roads and motorways also mark 100-metre subdivisionals, using Roman numerals from I to IX for the smaller intervals. The sign "IX | 17" thus marks kilometre 17.9.

A notable exception to the use of Roman numerals in Europe is in Greece, where Greek numerals (based on the Greek alphabet) are generally used in contexts where Roman numerals would be used elsewhere.

Special values

Zero

The number zero does not have its own Roman numeral, but the word nulla (the Latin word meaning "none") was used by medieval scholars in lieu of 0. Dionysius Exiguus was known to use nulla alongside Roman numerals in 525. [54] [55] About 725, Bede or one of his colleagues used the letter N, the initial of nulla or of nihil (the Latin word for "nothing"), in a table of epacts, all written in Roman numerals. [56]

Fractions

A triens
coin (1/3 or 4/12 of an as
). Note the four dots (****) indicating its value. Vecchi 003.jpg
A triens coin (1/3 or 4/12 of an as). Note the four dots (····) indicating its value.
A semis
coin (1/2 or 6/12 of an as
). Note the S indicating its value. Semisse.jpg
A semis coin (1/2 or 6/12 of an as). Note the S indicating its value.

Though the Romans used a decimal system for whole numbers, reflecting how they counted in Latin, they used a duodecimal system for fractions, because the divisibility of twelve (12 = 22 × 3) makes it easier to handle the common fractions of 1/3 and 1/4 than does a system based on ten (10 = 2 × 5). On coins, many of which had values that were duodecimal fractions of the unit as , they used a tally-like notational system based on twelfths and halves. A dot (·) indicated an uncia "twelfth", the source of the English words inch and ounce; dots were repeated for fractions up to five twelfths. Six twelfths (one half) was abbreviated as the letter S for semis "half". Uncia dots were added to S for fractions from seven to eleven twelfths, just as tallies were added to V for whole numbers from six to nine. [57]

Each fraction from 1/12 to 12/12 had a name in Roman times; these corresponded to the names of the related coins:

FractionRoman numeralName (nominative and genitive)Meaning
1/12· Uncia, unciae "Ounce"
2/12 = 1/6·· or : Sextans, sextantis "Sixth"
3/12 = 1/4··· or Quadrans, quadrantis"Quarter"
4/12 = 1/3···· or Triens, trientis"Third"
5/12····· or Quincunx, quincuncis "Five-ounce" (quinque unciaequincunx)
6/12 = 1/2SSemis, semissis"Half"
7/12S·Septunx, septuncis"Seven-ounce" (septem unciaeseptunx)
8/12 = 2/3S·· or S: Bes, bessis "Twice" (as in "twice a third")
9/12 = 3/4S··· or S Dodrans, dodrantis
ornonuncium, nonuncii
"Less a quarter" (de-quadransdodrans)
or "ninth ounce" (nona uncianonuncium)
10/12 = 5/6S···· or S Dextans, dextantis
ordecunx, decuncis
"Less a sixth" (de-sextansdextans)
or "ten ounces" (decem unciaedecunx)
11/12S····· or S Deunx, deuncis"Less an ounce" (de-unciadeunx)
12/12 = 1I As, assis "Unit"

The arrangement of the dots was variable and not necessarily linear. Five dots arranged like (⁙) (as on the face of a die) are known as a quincunx, from the name of the Roman fraction/coin. The Latin words sextans and quadrans are the source of the English words sextant and quadrant .

Other Roman fractional notations included the following:

Large numbers

A number of systems were developed for the expression of larger numbers that cannot be conveniently expressed using the normal seven letter symbols of conventional Roman numerals.

Apostrophus

"1630" on the Westerkerk in Amsterdam, with the date expressed in "apostrophus" notation. Westerkerk MDCXXX.jpg
"1630" on the Westerkerk in Amsterdam, with the date expressed in "apostrophus" notation.

One of these was the apostrophus, [58] in which 500 (usually written as "D") was written as , while 1,000, was written as CIƆ instead of "M". [18] This is a system of encasing numbers to denote thousands (imagine the Cs and Ɔs as parentheses), which has its origins in Etruscan numeral usage. The and CIƆ used to represent 500 and 1,000 most likely preceded, and subsequently influenced, the adoption of "D" and "M" in conventional Roman numerals.

In this system, an extra Ɔ denoted 500, and multiple extra Ɔs are used to denote 5,000, 50,000, etc. For example:

Base number CIƆ = 1,000CCIƆƆ = 10,000CCCIƆƆƆ = 100,000
1 extra Ɔ = 500CIƆƆ = 1,500CCIƆƆƆ = 10,500CCCIƆƆƆƆ = 100,500
2 extra ƆsIƆƆ = 5,000 CCIƆƆƆƆ = 15,000CCCIƆƆƆƆƆ = 105,000
3 extra ƆsIƆƆƆ = 50,000  CCCIƆƆƆƆƆƆ = 150,000

Sometimes CIƆ was reduced to ↀ for 1,000. John Wallis is often credited for introducing the symbol for infinity (modern ∞), and one conjecture is that he based it on this usage, since 1,000 was hyperbolically used to represent very large numbers. Similarly, IƆƆ for 5,000 was reduced to ↁ; CCIƆƆ for 10,000 to ↂ; IƆƆƆ for 50,000 to ↇ; and CCCIƆƆƆ for 100,000 to ↈ. [59]

Vinculum

Page from a 16th-century manual, showing a mixture of apostrophus and vinculum numbers (see in particular the ways of writing 10,000). Roman numerals Bungus 1584-1585.png
Page from a 16th-century manual, showing a mixture of apostrophus and vinculum numbers (see in particular the ways of writing 10,000).

Another system is the vinculum , in which conventional Roman numerals are multiplied by 1,000 by adding a "bar" or "overline". [59] Although mathematical historian David Eugene Smith disputes that this was part of ancient Roman usage, [60] the notation was certainly in use in the Middle Ages, and is sometimes suggested as a workable method for modern use, although it is not standardised as such.

Any hundreds, tens or units in the number are written in ordinary Roman numerals - but instead of M, MM or MMM, "barred" notation is used to express the thousands - which greatly expands the range of numbers expressible.

For instance:

  • IV = 4,000
  • IVDCXXVII = 4,627
  • XXV = 25,000
  • XXVCDLIX = 25,459

If this were ever to be applied consistently in our own times - then the main difficulty would be what to do with "M" - one way would be to do away with "M" altogether, except perhaps for CM (=900) - thus rendering MMXVIII as IIXVIII - or alternatively to retain "M" in its current usage, with the barred numerals starting at IV (=4,000). Retaining "M" would permit our numerals to run up to MMMCMXCIXCMXCIX (= 3,999,999).

Another inconsistent medieval usage was the addition of vertical lines (or brackets) before and after the numeral to multiply it by 10 (or 100): thus M for 10,000 as an alternative form for X. In combination with the overline the bracketed forms might be used to raise the multiplier to (say) ten (or one hundred) thousand, thus:

  • VIII for 80,000 (or 800,000)
  • XX for 200,000 (or 2,000,000)
Use of Roman numeral "I" (with exaggerated serifs) contrasting with the upper case letter "I". SectionI.JPG
Use of Roman numeral "I" (with exaggerated serifs) contrasting with the upper case letter "I".

Through all this, and whether any kind of vinculum notation or "barring" ought to be revived or not, this needs to be distinguished from the custom, once very common, of adding both underline and overline to a Roman numeral, simply to make it clear that it is a number, e.g. MCMLXVII (1967).

Unicode

The "Number Forms" block of the Unicode computer character set standard has a number of Roman numeral symbols in the range of code points from U+2160 to U+2188. [61] This range includes both upper- and lowercase numerals, as well as pre-combined characters for numbers up to 12 (Ⅻ or XII). One justification for the existence of pre-combined numbers is to facilitate the setting of multiple-letter numbers (such as VIII) on a single horizontal line in Asian vertical text. The Unicode standard, however, includes special Roman numeral code points for compatibility only, stating that "[f]or most purposes, it is preferable to compose the Roman numerals from sequences of the appropriate Latin letters". [62] The block also includes some apostrophus symbols for large numbers, an old variant of "L" (50) similar to the Etruscan character, the Claudian letter "reversed C", etc.

Symbol
Value1,0005,00010,00065050,000100,000

See also

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References

Notes

  1. Without theorising about causation, it may be noted that "IV" uses 25% fewer strokes than "IIII", and takes up 25% less space. For the other forms (IX, XL, XC, CD, and CM), the savings on either or both counts are 50% or more. "IX" is also more distinctive than "VIIII" and less likely to be confused with "VIII". This equally applies to XC, CD, and CM).
  2. Since the largest Roman numerals likely to be used today are year numbers up to the present there is normally no need to use Roman numerals for numbers beyond this limit. In the unlikely case a larger number might be needed there is really no reason why more "M"s, as required, could not be added, cumbersome as this might prove. Through the centuries during which Roman numerals remained the standard way of writing numbers throughout Europe there were extensions to the system designed to indicate larger numbers, see the final sections of this article.

Citations

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Sources

Further reading