Copyright

The History of Roman Numerals

An error occurred trying to load this video.

Try refreshing the page, or contact customer support.

Coming up next: The Early Roman Empire and the Reign of Augustus Caesar

You're on a roll. Keep up the good work!

Take Quiz Watch Next Lesson
 Replay
Your next lesson will play in 10 seconds
  • 0:00 What Are Roman Numerals?
  • 1:32 Early History: Tally Sticks
  • 2:25 Early History: Hand Signals
  • 3:08 Problems with Roman Numerals
  • 4:56 Roman Numerals Today
  • 5:26 Lesson Summary
Save Save Save

Want to watch this again later?

Log in or sign up to add this lesson to a Custom Course.

Log in or Sign up

Timeline
Autoplay
Autoplay
Speed Speed

Recommended Lessons and Courses for You

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Mark Bound

Mark has taught graduate level political science and sociology and has a Ph.D. in International Conflict Analysis and Resolution

In this lesson, you'll learn the history of Roman numerals, from their development in Ancient Rome up to how they're still used today, as well as their advantages and disadvantages.

What are Roman Numerals?

Roman numerals are a numeric system which utilizes a series or combination of alpha characters, or letters, which represent numeric values. These characters, when arranged in the correct order, were designed to represent a sophisticated counting system that was used in the Roman Empire for trading and commerce.

Roman numerals were based upon the Latin alphabet. Therefore, if an ancient Roman were alive today and asked to write down a number, the characters he would use would be similar, yet not exactly the same, as the standard characters used today.

Roman numerals are a cumulative system, meaning that the value being presented is a combination of similar symbols to reach the next value symbol. Simply put, in Roman numerals the value of 1 is represented with a capital I. Combining two of these symbols together, II, gives us the value of 2.

Roman numerals are also an additive and subtractive system, or a system that adds or subtracts symbols in order to make corresponding numbers. To represent the value of 6, simply add the symbol for 1 (I) to the symbol for 5 (V), giving the symbol VI or 5 + 1. Likewise, to represent the numeric value of 4 (IV), Roman numerals use a subtractive system with the characters representing 5 - 1.

Early History: Tally Sticks

There exist many theories as to the origin of their existence; however it's widely accepted that Roman numerals are based upon a more ancient Etruscan system. During ancient times merchants used tally sticks for recording commerce transactions. Tally sticks were simply an ancient memory device used to record and remember quantities and represent the numeric value of trading transactions. On tally sticks, single digits were represented with a single notch, whereas a group of five was represented as either a standard or inverted V. To represent the value of 10, a tally stick simply crossed two single notches, making X.

Tally sticks, or some similar methods of simple recording, had been in use long before the founding of the Roman Empire. It's from this system of notches, found on wooden or bone merchant tally sticks, that the characters of the Roman numeral system are believed by some to have originated.

Early History: Hand Signals

An alternative to the tally sticks theory is that Roman numerals are a representation of hand signals, and that the Roman numerals I, II, and III represent the number of fingers held up during auctions. Similar to a modern-day auction, ancient merchants including Romans would gather together and bid against each other. The hand signal theory suggests that the system of Roman numerals is a direct representation of these hand signals. For larger numbers such as 5 or 10, merchants would hold up their hand with their thumb extended and their fingers together to represent 5, or with their arms crossed for 10, which is similar to the V and X used in the Roman numeral system.

To unlock this lesson you must be a Study.com Member.
Create your account

Register to view this lesson

Are you a student or a teacher?

Unlock Your Education

See for yourself why 30 million people use Study.com

Become a Study.com member and start learning now.
Become a Member  Back
What teachers are saying about Study.com
Try it risk-free for 30 days

Earning College Credit

Did you know… We have over 200 college courses that prepare you to earn credit by exam that is accepted by over 1,500 colleges and universities. You can test out of the first two years of college and save thousands off your degree. Anyone can earn credit-by-exam regardless of age or education level.

To learn more, visit our Earning Credit Page

Transferring credit to the school of your choice

Not sure what college you want to attend yet? Study.com has thousands of articles about every imaginable degree, area of study and career path that can help you find the school that's right for you.

Create an account to start this course today
Try it risk-free for 30 days!
Create an account
Support