Early Roman Numerals

Most know Roman Numerals as these:

roman_numerals

but earliest in their history they looked like this:

early_roman_numerals

What I find neat about these versions of the numerals is one can easily imagine the logic the original inventors of this number system used; using an extra tally mark to indicate 5, a different tally mark to indicate 10, modifying 5 and 10 to get 50 and 100, and modifying 100 to get 1000 and then chopping the symbol in half to indicate 500.

There’s also enough evidence from Roman writing to trace the evolution of the symbols to the final forms:

transition

This diagram is adapted off of Georges Ifrah’s book The Universal History of Numbers. There are “side branches” (especially with 1000) but I kept only the elements of the most direct route to the finish.

2 Responses

  1. Jason,
    It may be more simple than “the logic the original inventors of this number system used; using an extra tally mark to indicate 5, a different tally mark to indicate 10, ” .
    In the early Syrian, Greek, and Hebrew cultures the numbers were all drawn from successive letters of the alphabet. I believe Moritz Cantor and some other students of Math History suggest that the Roman Numerals may well have developed from the Etruscan culture which did the same thing. and was the dominant culture in Tuscany and down to present day Rome.
    Writers eventually modified the “foreign” symbols to look more like their native symbols.
    It seems the old Etrurian symbol for 1000 looked a lot more like our present day 8 than an M, and I think the M may well have come from a word abbreviation (mille) than modification of an old symbol…

    Thanks for a nice history link…
    Pat Ballew

  2. All those symbols I note in the diagram have some real examples.

    The original symbol for 50 was still found quite late in history, up to the ADs.

    Now, most texts I know of note the transition from the symbol I gave and “M” was under the influence of the word “mille”. Looking at the diagram in the source work I mentioned, it definitely is the most complicated and “fudgy” but nevertheless examples of each of those symbols can be found.

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