Saturday, May 16, 2020

Did Roman Numerals Develop After The Advent Of The Printing Press?

People often ask; "If the Romans were so smart, then why did they have such a terrible number system?" What with Roman numerals being so impractical, especially for Mathematics.

(Standard Roman numerals.)

According to the conventional history Roman numerals originated in ancient Rome, over two thousands years ago. In turn developing from the earlier Etruscan number system. Conversely the printing press is said to have been invented much later, in the fifteenth century. Though printing in general has much earlier origins, going back far deeper in history. The earliest surviving examples of woodblock printing from China said to date from circa 200 AD.

In this article I'm going to suggest that Roman numerals in fact came after the advent of printing. If not after the advent of the printing press itself.

So what's the logic behind this thinking?

When block printing began printers would naturally only have blocks for the letters of the alphabet. If they wanted to print a number they would then need to make separate blocks for the number symbols. However, this would be costly and time consuming. Especially as numbers rarely figured in most printed texts anyway.

So they just used letters. As they already had an abundance of these at their disposal. Hence why Roman numerals are indeed all letter symbols.

One to ten - or I to X if you prefer - is simply a tally system. This is commonly used when counting anyway. So it was a natural way to represent numbers in the absence of the numerical symbols. The V is simply a crossing off - as we normally do when we reach five when we're making tally marks. Likewise with the X.

(tally marks)

The X is simply two V's. A right-way-round V on top of an upside down one. So it makes sense that V is half the value of X.

Other letters were then used to stand for the bigger numbers where this tallying became impractical. For example, C for century and M for mille (a thousand).

So Roman numerals were just used for printing. As a labour and cost saving alternative. They were never used by the Romans, or any other culture, as the primary number system. Their presence on other items and artefacts, such as clocks and buildings, then simply being a product of printed books making them fashionable.

If we ignore the conventional history this explanation makes perfect sense. Though that's quite a brave thing to do. As will be familiar to anyone that has read other articles on this blog my general view is that the conventional timeline is somewhat confused, and that "ancient" Rome effectively blends into medieval history. With much of what we think of as ancient Rome (and ancient Greece) existing only in textbooks from the medieval period onward. Whatever the true history though this idea that Roman numerals are a product of block printing is an interesting little theory.

(P. S. - you may have noticed I avoided giving an explanation for the meanings of the L and the D symbols. I have some ideas, but haven't quite fleshed them out just yet ..or you could perhaps say I don't really have a good enough explanation yet. So have cheated a little bit :) Either way I may come back with another article that goes into these aspects in more detail.)

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