The History of Mathematics

Greek and Roman Mathematics

What is the origin of Roman numerals?

Because the history of Roman numerals is not well documented, their origin is highly debated. It is thought that the numerals were developed around 500 B.C.E., partially from primitive Greek alphabet symbols that were not incorporated into Latin. The actual reasons for the seven standard symbols are also argued. Some researchers believe the symbol for 1 (I) was derived from one digit on the hand; the symbol for 5 (V) may have developed because the outstretched hand held vertically forms a “V” from the space between the thumb and first finger; the symbol for 10 (X) may have been two Vs joined at the points, or it may have had to do with the way people or merchants used their hands to count resembled an “X.” All the reasons so far have merely been educated guesses.


Archimedes discovered a clever way to measure the volume of an irregularly shaped object using water displacement.

How ever the symbols were developed, they were used with efficiency and with remarkable aptitude by the Romans. Unlike the ancient Greeks, the Romans weren’t truly interested in “pure” math, such as abstract geometry. Instead, they concentrated on “applied math,” using mathematics and their Roman numerals for more practical purposes, such as building roads, temples, bridges, and aqueducts; for keeping merchant accounts; and for managing supplies for their armies.

Centuries after the Roman Empire fell, various cultures still used Roman numerals. Even today, the symbols are still in existence; they are used on certain timepieces, in formal documents, and for listing dates in the form of years. For example, just watch the end credits of your favorite movie or television program and you will often see the movie’s copyright date in Roman numerals.


This is a web preview of the "The Handy Math Answer Book" app. Many features only work on your mobile device. If you like what you see, we hope you will consider buying. Get the App