The History of Roman Numerals

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  • 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
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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.

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