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The History And Origin Of Roman Numerals

Updated on April 21, 2014

We, as human beings, have a very rich history, and the best part is that most of the history of mankind is saved or known somehow. Centuries ago, mankind had not anything to write so they used to write on walls with symbols. They never knew that they will be remembered for the years to come. Even there was no proper means of recording the history or the current moments then, but it still somehow passed on and we now know much of it even today. Talk of Egyptians, Romans, Greek, Arabs and other old civilizations that are still known and pretty much alive today.

We got several important things along with this history. In fact, most of the systems, education, policies and traditions are derived from the past. Roman numerals or Roman numbering system is one among them. This Roman numeral system was developed around 500 B.C. and at that time it was used as the only numbering system. Interestingly even today, it still serves the same purpose and is used widely in several fields. Although it isn’t the only numbering system today but we cannot deny its importance and uses in anyway.

How much do you know about the history of Roman numerals (before reading this article)?

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Not much is known as to how Roman numerals actually originated. There are different schools of thoughts. Although we know that this particular numbering system was developed by Romans to understand numbers and numbering system but what were the consequences that led to the formation of this particular numbering system, are fairly unknown.

For instance, why they choose to represent 10 with X and not to any other symbol? The Roman numerals are nothing but a set of different symbols. Today, it is a bit hard for us to realize that these are symbols because we have been using them for years. And secondly, we have been using these symbols at several other places too like for us, X means the alphabet ‘X’ or 10 until it is stated. But back then when Romans developed their numbering system, they had nothing but symbols to do all the mathematics, counting, numbering and other calculations.

Origin of the Roman numerals

When we talk of the exact origin of the Roman numerals, things will not be easy for us. Even historians are not pretty much sure. But as said, there are different schools of thought and there are different hypotheses about the origin of the Roman numbering system.

Historians and scientists, however, agree to the fact that the symbols used in Roman numerals are independent symbols and signs that were not being used by Romans. Only 2 digits of the Roman numerals are found to be the part of the Roman alphabet which are I and X. All the other symbols used in the numbering system were new for instance, C, D M and many others. To this extent, all the historians and researchers agree but when it comes to the mystery of the origin of the other symbols of the Roman numeral system, the most famous and widely accepted hypothesis is the one known as Tally Sticks.

Tally Sticks

Most of the researchers agree to the fact that Roman numerals are derived from Tally Sticks. Tally Sticks is an old device that was used for recording purpose and to remember quantities. This is a pretty old concept and it was used by Romans even before they invented Roman numerals. So to device their own numbering system, they took most of the concepts from Tally Sticks.

Researchers and historians that support this hypothesis argue that ‘I’ refers to the ‘І’ that is derived from Tally Sticks where ‘I’ represents a notch score. Same way, in Tally Sticks I,II,III and IIII were used to represent 1,2,3 and 4 respectively. This concept was amended and then Romans formed their own new numbering system.

Almost all the symbols that were used in the Roman numerals were taken from Tally Sticks. Later on, these symbols were amended and they lost their shape. Most of them were renewed in the time of Augustus. For instance, C was used to represent 100 which we still use and is known as ‘cent’, ‘M’ was introduced to replace the old symbol which represented (and still represent) 1000, we call it ‘mile’.

Hand Signals

Another similar and over-lapping concept is known hand signals. Researchers like Hooper are of the view that Roman numeral symbols were derived from hand signals where ‘I’ represent a single finger and ‘II’ represent two fingers and so on. This concept only explains the initial 10 symbols of the Roman numerals.

These two are the most famous and mostly accepted theories that explain the origin of the Roman numerals and their symbols to some extent.

Do you think that we should teach our kids Roman numerals and symbols that are used today?

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No matter how these symbols were derived back then, the important thing to note here is that Roman numerals play a very vital role even today. Ever since the invention of the Roman numerals, it has been used a lot. Even the numbering system that we are using today has been mostly derived from the ancient Roman numbering system. Same way most of the other numbering systems were derived from this particular numbering system.

If you are of the view that Roman numerals is of no use, you are absolutely wrong. The exact Roman numeral system is being used at is today for instance in movies, clocks, books and in several other fields. As stated, even our numbering system contains a lot of symbols that were initially the part of Roman numerals for instance ‘c’, ‘m’ and others. In fact, our basic numbering system is just an advanced version of the Roman numbering system. We should be thankful to the Romans for their invention because we got our numbering system derived from their numbering system.

Finally, I would like to encourage parents and teachers to make their kids learn Roman numerals and this ancient numbering system. They should learn Roman numeral converter methods and they should know as much as possible about this ancient numbering system so that they can easily read all those symbols quite easily. We are using Roman numerals in several fields even today, our kids should learn them as well.


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    • Eiddwen profile image

      Eiddwen 4 years ago from Wales

      How interesting and I now look forward to many more by you.

      Voting up and sharing.