History of the Roman Numerals

The Roman numerals are symbols from the ancient Roman Empire that were commonly used to represent small numbers. The system could also incorporate larger numbers. And for centuries, they were the typical way of writing numbers in the empire. This numerical system was also widespread across Europe up until the Middle Ages. The question on most historians’ minds about this topic is that how far did the Roman numeral system go?  Detailed answer will be provided to the above question as well as the modern usage of the Roman numerals.

Brief Overview of the System

Broadly speaking, the Roman numeral uses 7 main letters of the Latin alphabet to represent numbers. The symbols are as follows:

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Roman numeral symbols along with their corresponding values

To form numbers with the Roman numerals, the subtractive or additive notation is deployed. Whenever a symbol is placed after another symbol, the resultant value is the sum of the two symbols.

For example, II means I+I (1+1) = II (2). Similarly, MM= M+M=1,000+1000=2,000. And VIII= V+I+I+I= 8

However, if the symbol comes before another symbol of greater value, the result is obtained by subtracting the two values. IV means V-I= 4. Similarly, XL= L-X= 40, and XC= C-X= 90.

Original Forms of the Roman Numerals

As mentioned above, the Roman numeral is a form of numeric system that owes it origins to ancient Rome. Unlike its current form of 7 symbols, only three symbols were used: I, V, and X (1, 5, and 10 respectively) in the original forms. What the ancient Romans then did was to add 1(I) as the number progressed. So for example the integer 4 will be represented as IIII. Then 7 will have VII. 9 will be VIIII. These three symbols (I, V, and X) were like tally marks. Therefore, numbers 1 to 10 was:


Evolved Version of the Roman Numerals

The above Roman numerals (without the notation or additive principle) can get a bit confusing to eyes. For example IIII could easily be mistaken for III at a quick glance. Therefore, and over the centuries, the Roman numeral system witnessed slight changes. The revised version employed what is called the subtractive and additive notation. So instead of having IIII, 4 will now be IV. And the “I” before a V means one less than V (5). And instead of having VIIII for 9, the subtractive notation means that 9 will be IX. So the first 10 integers under the subtractive and additive notation will go like this:


For numbers above 10, X, L and C are used very much. In this regard,  the subtractive and additive notations are applied here as well. That is, when a symbol appears to the left of another symbol, it means they should be deducted. Conversely, when the symbol appears to the right of the symbol, it means they should be added (the additive notation). Numbers 10, 20, 30, 40, 50, 60, 70, 80, 90, and 100 will be written as follows in roman numerals:


In a similar fashion as the above, the numbers hundred to one thousand (100 to 1000) will be as follows:


D and M, as stated above, represent 500 and 1000 respectively. Symbols CD (400) and CM (900) use the same subtractive and additive notation made mention above.

How are Large Numbers Represented in Roman Numerals?

You must have been wondering by now that after 3,999, the Roman numbering system will become a bit unpleasantly long. Yes, you are right! The problem of excessive repetition comes to fore when dealing with larger numbers in their thousands. In the ancient Roman Empire, this problem was taken care of using several ways. They had special numbers for such cases. The mirrored C (Ↄ) was the commonest symbol for large numbers back then.

As the empire progressed, an altered version of the 3 symbols (I, V and X) started gaining popular usage for numbers in the thousands. The Romans placed a line above the symbols. Also, Roman numerals in the hundreds of thousands had additional lines on their sides.

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Roman numerals with larger numbers

In modern times, numbers greater than 3,999 are rarely represented by Roman numerals. And considering the century that we are in, it will take a very long time before we started struggling with representing the years in roman numerals. For now, a typical 21st century year can be represented very cleanly using the Roman numeral system. For example, the year 2018 can be written as MMXIII. The year 2299 can have a rather longer numeral: MMCCXCIX. But years or numbers of those sorts are still very much manageable as compared to numbers greater than 3999.

Let’s look at how the Roman numerals will look like with the following famous landmark years of our modern era:

  • For example,  the date of the Declaration of Independence can be neatly written as: IV, July, MDCCLXXVI
  • Another interesting date that comes out perfectly nice using the Roman numeral is the coronation date of Queen Elizabeth II (6 February, 1952): VI February, MCMLII (The very day Queen Elizabeth II ascended to the throne).
  • The Rio Olympics of 2016 will be written as MMXI
  • The Beatles first album titled “My Bonnie/The Saints” was released in MCMLXII (1962)
  • For a much sadder date, say the World Trade Center Twin attacks occurred in MMI (2001)
  • NASA’s interplanetary space probe, New Horizons, made a close-up flyby of Pluto in MMXV (2015).

Classical Usage and Modern Variations

The Roman numerals feature extensively on the faces of clocks and watches these days. The Great Clock of Westminster, housed within the Clock Tower (officially called Elizabeth Tower) in Westminster, London,  uses the Roman numeral system. And it sticks to the subtractive or additive notation rule. Thus, it shows “4” as IV.


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Westminster Palace’s huge clock (Big Ben) with the Roman numeral system.


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Roman numerals featuring prominently on the  Wells Cathedral Clock

What is most interesting is that some post-Roman Empire structures hardly followed the subtractive notation rule. The Admiralty Arch in London  is dated as MDCCCX instead of MCMX. The Latin inscription atop reads:



History of Roman numerals

The Admiralty Arch in London with its Roman numerals and Latin inscription that reads in English as: “In the tenth year of King Edward VII, to Queen Victoria, from most grateful citizens, 1910”

The clock at Grand Central uses IIII, instead of IV. This is pretty much common on dials and faces of clocks, pocket watches and wristwatches.

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Clock at Grand Central, New York, with IIII representing 4

The Colosseum’s gates had several cases of where the subtractive notation was not applied. Instead of IV, IIII was the much preferred option. In retrospect, the ancient Romans did not stick to this rule much often. Historians attribute this to a number of reasons. Firstly, it was because of the IV symbol resembling the Roman’s supreme deity’s name, Jupiter. In Latin, Jupiter is spelt as IVPPITER. The Romans did not want to commit heresy by putting a symbol that was similar to their god of the sky and king of the gods, Jupiter.

The second reason has to do with the slight mathematical calculation that comes with “IV”. With IIII not obeying the subtractive notation, the common folks and less educated Romans could easily have read it. An even in the Middle ages, the clocks that were mounted atop churches or in town centers would have factored in the average non-educated folk. Therefore, IIII was  a much easier option to read or even write than IV.

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A typical modern day clock that uses the Roman numerals

Today, majority of the watch manufacturers prefer using IIII (instead of IV) as a matter of maintaining tradition rather than for reasons  above.

How did the Romans come up with this system?

The answer is simple. Tallying! As the Romans counted, every 5th count was struck with special symbol. And every tenth count was struck with another special symbol. Those special symbols vary sharply from place to place. What is interesting however is that for numbers 1 to 4, sticks or stick-like shapes were used. Numbers 1 to 10 back then may have looked like this:

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Roman numerals without the substractive notation

Note how these symbols, ʌ and x,  appear like the modern versions of V and X. Back then, many Romans used an inverted V in place of 5. Other symbols such as ⃝      and  ↑  were very much common back then.

Before the Romans, what numeral system was used for numbering?

Prior to the Romans, a similar system during the  Etruscan Civilization was used.  The Etruscan were a very vibrant 8th to 3rd century BCE culture prior to the Romans conquering them. Historians believe that the Roman numeral system as well as a host of other Etruscan cultural and historical artifacts and belief systems were assimilated into the burgeoning Roman Empire. With regards to the origins of those Etruscan counting and numbering system, we can safely assume that they must have come from a simple act such as tallying.

Alternatively, some historians hold the view that the Roman numeral system is the product of hand gestures. Numbers 1 to 4 correspond to the four fingers. The thumb that is shaped like a V represents 5.

For numbers 6 to 10, the two hands were used. When the counting got to 10, the two thumbs were crossed to make an X sign.

Usage in the Modern Era

Historical documents show that the Roman numerals were gradually replaced by the Arabic numerals (that is 1,2,3,…) which were more convenient. The Arabic numerals were first introduced into Europe around about the 11th century. It was popular among Arabic merchants and traders. As time went on, their numerals gained wide spread in all of Europe. Regardless of this, the Roman numeral system is still commonly preferred dealing with the following (till date):

  • Names of Monarchs and Popes

Regnal numbers of monarchs, rulers and Popes  to this date still deploy the Roman numerals. The tradition first began in the Middle Ages. During the reign of Henry VIII (pronounced as Henry the eight), the usage started picking up momentum. Prior to this, the monarchs used epithet to distinguish one from another. An example of such epithet will be: Edward the Confessor, Charles the Simple of France, and Joan the mad of Spain. With the help of Roman numerals, epithets were not so necessary in their titles. This is evident in the titles of some European monarchs and popes. Examples of such titles with Roman numerals are Louis XIV (Louis the fourteenth), King George II, Charles IV of Spain, King Edward VII,

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Louis XIV of France preferred using his regnal number on his coinage.

In modern times, we can make mention of these titles Pope John Paul II (Pope John Paul the second), Queen Elizabeth II, Pope Benedict XVI and Felipe VI.

Post the French Revolution, the French resorted to using the Roman numerals to write down the years. For example Napoleon conquest of Egypt that took place in the years  1798 and 1799 can be written as MDCCXCVIII and MDCCXCIX

  • Generational names

In the U.S., the Roman numeral system started being deployed to distinguish two people in a family who shared the same names across generations. Example can be John Doe III (that is the third John Doe in the family tree).

  • Production years of films

In our modern era, it is not uncommon to see shows, films, and art works dated using the Roman numerals. The release year  of the Shawshank Redemption movie can be written as MCMXCIV.

Some people believe that artist and production companies employ its usage as subterfuge. It is to mask or hide the date of the production. The jury is still out on that one for sure.

  • Building construction and a cornerstone

Buildings and cornerstones till this day still prefer using the Roman numerals.

  • Prefaces and book Introductions

It is not uncommon to find page numbering of prefaces and book introductions as well as appendices and annexes using Roman numerals. Book volumes and chapters are also not exempt from using this numeral.

  • Films, books, software, and video games sequels

Examples include: Final Fantasy XV (game), Adobe Reader XI (pdf reader), and Age of Empire III (game)

  • Natural satellites and moons

Scientists often name natural satellites and moons of planets using roman numerals. Notable examples are Saturn VI (Titan), Jupiter II (Europa), Uranus I (Ariel), Neptune XIV (Hippocamp) and Pluto I (Charon).

  • School subjects

Notable examples can be found in the titles of advanced mathematics such as trigonometry, statistics and calculus.

How famous is the Roman numerals in today’s Greece?

Prior to the Romans conquest and movement into ancient Greece, the Greeks themselves had their own number system. Therefore, it is fair to say that in Greece today the Greek numerals are used in the places and situations where Roman numerals are used in other parts of the world.

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