What are Roman Numerals?

By Salome Chelangat on November 1 2017 in Did You Know

 Numbers in Roman numerals are formed by the combination of symbols and adding the values.
Numbers in Roman numerals are formed by the combination of symbols and adding the values.

What Are the Roman Numerals?

The Roman Numeral System is a system where numbers are represented by the combination of Latin alphabet letters. It was the standard way of writing numbers in Europe during the late Middle Ages. Roman numerals were useful even after the fall of the Roman Empire, but from the fourteenth century, the Hindu-Arabic number system replaced it since it was more convenient. The process of replacement was, however, quite slow. Today, the Roman numerals still have minor applications. 

Roman numeral system symbol

Decimal system value















Standard Forms

Numbers in Roman numerals feature the combination of symbols and addition of values. For example, "I" is the Roman number for one and "II" is the Roman number for two. The formation of "II" involves the doubling of the Roman letter "I." Similarly, "III" comprises of three ones, but the number eight or "VIII" is formed through a combination of V (representing five) and III (three) which means an addition of the value of the symbols. Therefore, the arrangement of Roman numerals is based on the order of values of the symbols such that the final combination represents the actual value in the decimal system. It is important to note that the system does not require "place keeping" since each numeral represents a fixed value and not the multiples of one, ten and more by position. The Roman numeral IV (four) is five (V) minus I (one) while VI (six) is five (V) plus one (I). 

Alternative Forms

Apart from the above standard forms, alternative forms of Roman numerals were used in ancient Rome but are used inconsistently in the present times. Typically, additive forms of the Roman symbols are common in ancient inscriptions such that the numbers four and nine, for example, are IIII and VIIII respectively rather than IV and IX as in the standard forms. 

In other alternative forms, V and L have no use in the system. Therefore, VI and LX would have cases of IIIIII and XXXXXX respectively. In the faces of clocks using Roman numerals, IIII rather than IV usually shows the four o’clock point, but the nine o'clock position uses the standard form. The clocks using this format were mostly the early ones since in the current clocks such as the one Big Ben in London uses the standard way for the four o'clock point. Lastly, there were varying Roman numeral representations of 900 during the start of the twentieth century. The number is typically CM according to the standard forms, but in several inscribed dates such as Saint Louise Art Museum, the inscription of 1903 is MDCDIII instead of MCMIII.

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