Roman numerals were utilitarian in nature, just like the Romans. The purpose of Roman Numerals was to count and do simple arithmetic, just as you might do with an abacus – this was clearly essential to a nation which was so commercially oriented. Numbers as we know and love them, including the number “0” are a medieval Arabic invention. After the Roman Empire the Middle East grew to be a great centre of scientific investigation and knowledge and pure mathematics was evidently essential. I suppose this suggests that basic arithmetic with unwieldy roman numerals is sufficient to undertake the amazing feats of ancient roman building and civil engineering such as the roman aqueducts.
Through the ages Roman numerals have often been employed to mark dates, for example on books and buildings, to the point that we are literally surrounded by plenty of examples. Interestingly there are a good number of examples of the numbers being written incorrectly!
The numerals themselves were drawn from what you might see if you counted on your fingers: lines (letter “i”) to denote fingers and a “V” to denote an open hand. Two V’s make an X = 10 fingers. Larger multiples had their own capital letters stemming from the actual name of the number.
The various symbols were combined according to a few relatively simple rules in order to make up larger numbers. For example, 3= iii but 4 = iv. You can see that “one” short of the next lettered multiple is denoted by a simple effort of subtraction. This allows you to keep the roman numerals as short as possible. 9 = iX ie one short of 10. The number 8 on the other hand would be made up of the largest symbols available: 5+3=viii. Just to give a last example, 50 is denoted by the letter “L”. 49= iL NOT XXXXiX and 45 would be VL. If C=100 then 90=XC, 95=VC and 99=iC. ie keep the roman numerals number as short as possible.
For a complete list of roman numerals have a look at the Roman Numerals Chart.
By the way, in roman numerals, this page was written in MMVI, this web site includes more than MCXXX pages and I was born in MCMLXVIII which makes me XXXVIII years old.
The Extra Mile
The Roman Numeral system was obviously pretty unwieldy and an evident shortcoming of it is the lack of simple means of defining larger numbers, possibly suggesting that the Romans had little need for such large arithmetics. God knows how they managed to undertake those amazing feats of engineering! (Probably through geometry).
In any case a number of means were devised through the Roman ages in order to define larger numbers. The first problem is that there is no shorthand means of writing 5000 or 10,000 say.
Two principal methods are available for large numbers, both involving multiplication:
1) Pure multiplication of smaller units and thousands. For example VIM stands for 6000.
2) Multiplication by 10, achieved by enclosing within brackets. 10,000 would therefore be (M) or (). Just to confuse you, the number 5000 could even be written D) rather than (D)
3) I said there were two principal methods but a third one deserves a mention. It still involves multiplication of any number (by 1000). This is achieved by placing a bar across the top of the number. Eg 5000 would be V . It’s my favourite for simplicity.
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