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# How were Roman numerals developed?

Question #76096. Asked by socom3. (Feb 19 07 8:58 PM)

gman89

They appear to derive from notches on tally sticks, such as those used by Italian and Dalmatian shepherds into the 19th century. Thus, the I descends from a notch scored across the stick. Every fifth notch was double cut (⋀, ⋁, ⋋, ⋌, etc.), and every tenth was cross cut (X), much like European tally marks today. This produced a positional system: Eight on a counting stick was eight tallies, IIIIΛIII, but this could be abbreviated ΛIII (or VIII), as the existence of a Λ implies four prior notches. Likewise, number four on the stick was the I-notch that could be felt just before the cut of the V, so it could be written as either IIII or IV. Thus the system was neither additive nor subtractive in its conception, but ordinal. When the tallies were later transferred to writing, the marks were easily identified with the existing Roman letters I, V, X.
Further enlightenment here:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roman_numerals#Origins

 Feb 19 07, 9:15 PM
socom3

 Feb 19 07, 10:05 PM
Baloo55th

The use of IV, IX and so on was a much later development which only came about when literacy was more common and dates and numbers were recorded in inscriptions. The Latin language was, in its higher levels, rather given to compression and omission of (to them) unnecessary stuff, so some bright spark had the idea of compressing the numbers. 99 would become IC instead of LXXXXVIIII, and is a lot easier to fit on a milestone, tombstone or legionary eagle. Or whatever. Very high numbers wouldn't necessarily come from the tally cutting, of course. Thee's a limit to how many notches you can cut on a stick. L probably comes from some word I can't remember meaning a bundle of five - hang on, a period of five years is a lustrum. Not guaranteeing the L meaning a lustrum of tally sticks of ten notches, but until a better idea comes up.... C is from centum (100) and M from mille (1000). No tally stick would be able to count in these areas without becoming unwieldy - and few shepherds would be counting in hundreds anyway. Not in those days. As gman's site says, there were other forms of the higher numbers, but the ones that won were fairly onbiously the ones connected to the words for those numbers as these would be mostly be used by literate people who would know what the initial letters of centum and so on looked like. Shepherds wouldn't. The use of H for 100 could be related to Greek, where the number 100 was an H (as in the now disused heka- unit in the centi- milli- etc series). The Greek practical system resembles the Roman system, but the characters used for the numbers are more complex. (The Greeks also used a system that was rather more compact based on letters of the alphabet which was closer to the modern system in some ways.)

 Feb 20 07, 5:20 AM

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