View previous topic | View next topic

Roman numerals and other stories

Page 1 of 2
Goto page 1, 2  Next

148255.  Sat Feb 17, 2007 7:14 am Reply with quote

While trying to come up with quiz questions, I thought that one good one would be "How do you write 4 in Roman numerals?". I was all set to klaxon "IV", until I realised I would be wrong to do so, and couldn't make the truth into a decent question. Anyway, the truth, in non question format, was that Romans would happily write 4 as either IV or as IIII. The subtractive system was by no means the only way they did things, and nor was the additive one, as I mistakenly believed. Similarly, of course, 9 could be IX or VIIII, and so on up the numerals. Vaguely interesting, I thought.

In other news, "What did Archimedes shout on leaping from his bath?" is a perfectly servicable question, removed only on Thursday night, when I realised that the chances of people knowing the right answer were slim, and of guessing it even slimmer. And of caring slimmer yet. Anyway, "eureka" would, of course, attract a klaxon here, as the 1st person singular perfect indicative active of the verb meaning to find out is "Heureka" (or more accurately ηὕρηκα) with a definite rough breathing (H) on the front. Quite Dull, rather than Quite Interesting, probably, but it has bugged me for years. And I've no idea why the H should have gone west like that; it hasn't on any other Greek derived words I know.

Oh, and loath as I am to disagree with what wonderful and marvellous producers of great and glorious television programmes may suggest in interviews with the Telegraph, Roman Chelmsford (Caesaromagus) was probably named after Claudius, not Julius Caesar, and was in fact one of two towns in Roman Britain to bear an imperial name; London was renamed Augusta for a bit in the 4th century.

148375.  Sat Feb 17, 2007 7:46 pm Reply with quote

Just a quick question, but I thought that Roman numerals never had four of the same 'letters' in them (So that 90 has to be written as XC, and not LXXXX).



148399.  Sun Feb 18, 2007 1:53 am Reply with quote

Yes, I was also taught this...but like so many other QI things I think this is Alfred's point... ;-)

148482.  Sun Feb 18, 2007 9:03 am Reply with quote

Indeed. 90 would now be written as XC in 'Roman' numerals, but an actual Roman would have just as happily written LXXXX, which is really a much better way of doing it, to my mind, as you don't have to keep thinking about whether a given numeral is to be added or subtracted. You just add up the lot. Unfortunately for question setting purpose, though, they might have written XC as well. Swines. Not sure when the subtractive method became king, though, rather than just one of two systems available.

148510.  Sun Feb 18, 2007 10:26 am Reply with quote

You could simply ask "What is wrong with these?" (with the following, amongst others, appearing on the screen in the background:)


to which the klaxon would be (most likely answered by Clive Anderson or someone similar) that they have 4 of the same letter

and the true answer would be nothing.

I do quite like the questions that catch out the Oxbridge breed of QI guests (the ones for which even the klaxon answer would be out of reach for Alan). It reminds everyone that "everything you think you know is wrong", especially the people that think they know more than everyone else.

148519.  Sun Feb 18, 2007 11:13 am Reply with quote

I think you'll find that "some of the things you think you know are wrong".........

148528.  Sun Feb 18, 2007 12:00 pm Reply with quote

I was quoting the back of The Book of General Ignorance!

gerontius grumpus
148616.  Sun Feb 18, 2007 5:54 pm Reply with quote

Numerals with four of the same letter were often used in monumental inscriptions.

148617.  Sun Feb 18, 2007 5:57 pm Reply with quote

You get 'IIII' on clocks and watches, but rarely 'IV'.

148633.  Sun Feb 18, 2007 6:23 pm Reply with quote

samivel wrote:
You get 'IIII' on clocks and watches, but rarely 'IV'.

So you do. I had never noticed that. I have noticed, however, that all printed adverts with clock faces on them show the time as either 10 past 10 or 10 to 2.

150647.  Fri Feb 23, 2007 7:23 am Reply with quote

samivel wrote:
You get 'IIII' on clocks and watches, but rarely 'IV'.

I seem to recall a tale whereby the original use of "IIII" on a clock was an error, and rather than correct it and look silly, it became the default usage from then on.

150659.  Fri Feb 23, 2007 7:41 am Reply with quote

Interesting some of the different reasons given...

The Louis XIV part would appear to be apocryphal.

150661.  Fri Feb 23, 2007 7:50 am Reply with quote

We have an old Victorian grandfather clock in the living room. It doesn't work anymore, sadly, but upon reading this I went to have a look. It does actually show "IV" instead of "IIII"...

Larry Lovage
152281.  Wed Feb 28, 2007 8:33 am Reply with quote

One thing to note that the "subtraction" system was invented later, and the order was not fixed - so originally not only could Romans write LXXXX to mean 90, but XC would actually equally mean 110 just as CX would.

The watches and clocks thing - I'm not sure if they do show ten past ten now, but they certainly used to show eight minutes past ten. When I used to read my Dad's Punch magazines in the late seventies, one day they had an advert with a variety of watches all set to the standard "watch-advert time", plus two digital watches which were set to 10:08. I then noticed that all the analogue watches were indeed set at 10:08, and so were all the watches in all the other adverts, regardless of brand or retailer.

186829.  Sat Jun 30, 2007 7:47 am Reply with quote

Transferred from post 186746, where it was interrupting an interesting discussion. It belongs here.

The question of whether the Romans used the subtractive or additive system (IV or IIII) for their numeration just becomes more messy; no one can seem to agree – not least the Romans themselves. It appears that sometimes they did and sometimes they didn’t. It would seem that they had a few rules but were prepared to break those when it suited them (as long as it was unambiguous). Is it any wonder there were no Roman mathematicians?

<Latin is a language as dead as dead can be, first it killed the Romans now it’s killing me etc.>

Two sources state that the subtractive method was equally uncommon in both Roman times and in the Middle Ages and is really a modern convention.

Here are a few selected quotes, although all the articles linked below are worth reading.

In actual practice, neither ancient nor modern usage of Roman numerals has conformed rigidly to hard and fast rules. Even the subtraction principle, perhaps the most conspicuous feature of Roman numerals as we know them today, was applied only sporadically by the Romans themselves[4]. Indeed, the appearance of a smaller numeral before a larger one in both ancient and medieval sources will often signify multiplication rather than subtraction. For example, VM for 5,000 or VIIC for 700 (also written as V.M and VIII.C, or with M and C as superscripts).

From the ‘note [4]’ quoted above:
4. Cappelli indicates that the Romans rarely used the subtraction principle and that the convention was equally uncommon during the Middle Ages. See his Dizionario di abbreviature latine ed italiane, 6th ed., Milano, 1967, p. LIV.

The use of the subtractive principle has always been optional. Its systematic use is fairly modern. For example, it's acceptable to use IIII instead of IV, as is usually done on clockfaces (to "balance" their left and right halves, so we're told).

There is more here on Medieval numeration:

Normally, only one smaller number can be placed to the left. So 19 can be depicted XIX but 17 cannot be written XIIIX or IIIXX. However, this rule is sometimes broken for number involving an eight. On some Roman monuments and tombs IIXX for 18 is found. And in recent times times, a statue by Hamo Thornycroft called A Sower in London's Kew Gardens bears an inscription with the date MCMXXIIX meaning 1928. Such uses are not 'correct' but are found very occasionally.

There is a Roman tombstone in York, England, of Lucius Duccius Rufinius, who was the standard bearer of the VIIII legion (9th), and was XXIIX years old (or 28).

Theories on the use of IIII rather than IV on clock faces:

In general this is a good site about Roman Numerals (two of the links above are from this site):


Page 1 of 2
Goto page 1, 2  Next

All times are GMT - 5 Hours

Display posts from previous:   

Search Search Forums

Powered by phpBB © 2001, 2002 phpBB Group