How to count in Roman (Latin, really)

We in Europe (and other places like Canada, USA, Australia) write and read numbers known as Arabic numerals. You know, 1, 2, 3, 27, 5,684,929…

But we used Roman letters – you know, A, B, C… X, Y, Z.

However, in Romanian and English history there was a time when we counted in Roman numerals. Romans (people from Rome or – as in England and Romania – ruled by Rome) used a different system of writing numbers.

Roman numeralsIn Roman numbers, the number one was written with a capital i. Like this: I. they used different letters to stand in for numbers. I don’t know why they chose these particular letters, so if you know, please tell me. The letters they chose were: I, V, X, L, C, D, M.

That’s all. Just 7 letters to make up every number there is in the world. Every number was made up of a combination of those letters. I was one, V was five, X was ten, L was fifty, C was 100, D was 500, and M was 1,000.

Once you get the hang of it it’s easy, but you have to practise so you get used to it.

Have a look around. We still use Roman numerals – some clocks have them to show the hours and minutes; kings and queens can have them in their names, like Henry VI or Carol I, and if you watch to the very end of film or TV shows, you sometimes see Roman numbers telling you the year the show was made. Like: ©BBC MMXIV = a BBC show made in 2014.

They repeated symbols for the numbers in between, like this:

II = 2, XXX = 30, CCC = 300, MM = 2,000. But just to make life more complicated, V and L and D are never repeated.

Just to torture us, the Romans also used take-away numbers. For instance:

IV = 4 (take-away one from five)

IX = 9 (take-away 1 from 10)

XL = 40 (take-away 10 from 50)

XC = 90 (take-away 10 from 100)

CD = 400 (take-away 100 from 500)

CM = 900 (take-away 100 from 1,000)

But not always (!!). Sometimes you’ll see 4 written as IIII, not IV. Look on clocks and watches to see which they use. Sometimes you’ll see 40 written as XXXX, not XL; sometimes 400 is CCCC, not CD; and sometimes 900 written as DCCCC, not CM.

Let’s try working out some of the Georges in the book.

Which number is George CCLXV? (100+100+50+10+5 = ???)

What about George CCXXXVIII? (100+100+10+10+10+5+1+1+1 = ???)

And George CCCLXXXVIII? (you can work this one out)