Tuesday 11 March 2014

History - The beginning of numbers

We have all grown accustomed to writing numbers as 1, 2, 3 and so on, having learnt them from an early age at school.

But have we thought how these numbers and shapes came to be?

In ancient times, even before when Romans ruled the world, people used to count in a very basic way. They would point at an item; say an apple, and say "an apple". They would write that as an I or just a vertical straight line. Pure and simple.

If they wanted to count more they would say "Another apple", and write II, (two vertical lines) and another apple, III ... and another apple, and another apple ... you get the idea.

This basic system of writing vertical lines every time you added something went on for years and years up to the Roman Empire. (They must have had a lot of apples to count).

And so it came to pass that two items (apples, although it would also work for pears, or grapes), would be represented by II and three items by III, four items by IIII and so on.

For a while everyone was happy with this system.

But it soon became too cumbersome when people started counting 10 apples as IIIIIIIIII. Can you imagine having more than 10 apples? Pretty soon people started confusing big numbers such as eleven: IIIIIIIIIII and twelve: IIIIIIIIIIII and so on.

A centurion in charge of a 100 men would stand them all in a long line and write down IIIIIIIIIIIIIII and on and on and on ... until he ran out of paper; or his pencil lead would wear out and he'd have to start all over again. Sometimes the soldiers would faint in the sun and the centurion would have to start counting all over again.

When the centurion went to his captain with the attendance record, the captain had to count all the vertical lines on the paper to find out how many soldiers were present. He might as well have counted the soldiers in the first place!

If the vertical lines did not add up to 100 the centurion had to change his title to ninetyturion, or ninetysixturion, depending on how many soldiers were present.

Counting became intolerable throughout the Roman Empire.

Number plates for chariots became so wide to accommodate the big Registration Numbers that the number plate itself had to be wider than the chariot. The chariot got stuck in narrow streets. It also tripped and injured pedestrians as the chariot hurried along on the open road.

Road signs advising speed limits like 30 miles an hour were also so wide with IIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIII vertical lines that the road sign itself blocked the whole road.

The Roman Guards were identified by the number on their badges which also were so large and heavy that the guards fell over.

Basically the system did not work at all and the Emperor, (Numeros Uno the Third - written I III), got so angry that he called his mathematician and asked him to come up with a new way of writing numbers.

The mathematician suggested that 4 be written as IV, 5 as V, 6 as VI and so on until 7. Then he changed his mind and decided that IX would represent nine, X for ten, XI for eleven and so on.

The crazy mathematician, (who must have been on the vino at the time), also added new shapes for good measure. For example L for fifty, C for one hundred, D for five hundred and M for one thousand.

The Emperor Numeros Uno the Third, (I III), must have fallen asleep half-way through the mathematicians explanation, (more vino perhaps), that he decreed the new system be used throughout the Roman Empire, under pain of death.

For fear of their lives everyone started using IX, XII, L and so on for CCCCCCCCCs of years.

For a while all was well and the Romans were happy counting their apples and pears. They even invented cuckoo clocks with Roman numerals, (an idea they later franchised to the Swiss). They also had sundials too with Roman numerals. They even painted the sundials with florescent paint so they could tell the time at night.

The use of Roman numerals suddenly stopped when many years later another ruler, the Emperor Claudius, received a text saying – I LV CLAVDIVS – and he didn’t know whether it was an amorous message from his girlfriend or his wife’s new telephone number.
He sent a message back saying LOL and got slapped in the face by both his wife and his girlfriend.

In total fury Emperor Claudius banned the use of all cell-phones in the Roman Empire rather than just change the numerical system to the 1, 2, 3 ... which we now use.

In so doing Emperor Claudius held back civilisation by many years because people had invented other electronic devices such as tablets and laptops but were too afraid to use them in case he got angry again.

It wasn't until many centuries later that civilisation as we know it started using the familiar 1, 2, 3, style numerals which we have learnt to love.

Which goes to show that whilst time waits for no man, it certainly stands still when women are getting ready to go out.

Why do they take so long?


  1. Why do women take so long to get ready? Because we can, that's why! It teaches our husbands patience and helps them get into heaven :)

    I cracked up when you wrote that the Romans franchised the cuckoo clocks with the Roman numerals to the Swiss - that really tickled me funny bone, and so did the reason they stopped using these numbers!

    Another funny history lesson, Victor! Thank you!

    1. It really never ceases to amaze me why women take so long to get ready. Even if they start getting ready the day before we still get where we're supposed to be going late. But if there's football on TV ... well, that's a different matter.

      I'm glad you enjoyed this History Lesson, Mary. I've written another six to be published here soon.

      God bless.

  2. Oh good, I'm looking forward to reading them, Victor!

    Football is something I really like to be late for ;) Actually, missing it totally is even better!

    1. Another History Lesson here tomorrow. Don't be late.

      And I promise no football.

      God bless you Mary.

  3. "If the vertical lines did not add up to 100 the centurion had to change his title to ninetyturion, or ninetysixturion, depending on how many soldiers were present."


    God Bless you.

    1. Did you know, Michael, the Romans spent their time counting rather than fighting. How they conquered the world I do not know. Perhaps they had calculators.

      God bless.



God bless you.