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The key failing of the roman numeral system

by daisy
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Roman numerals were a fantastic numerical system but never stood a chance in modern mainstream society. They lack one key ingredient, the zero. While it may look a little classier than our numerical system today the roman numeral system was only designed for one numerical purpose, counting. Apart from this use case, the system starts to fall apart a little. Read on to find out more.

While Roman numerals are used in many facets of life today it would be foolish to think they could ever take over from today’s standard system. We see Roman numerals on the faces of clocks, in the names of popes, in momentous occasions like the Olympics and in some plays. Yet it is unlikely that it will ever be more than that. One of the key reasons is the missing zero.

Roman numerals were created with the aim of counting things and they do it very well. Ancient Romans would simply use a line to indicate one unit. How many soldiers died in battle? IIII. Four. Simple. When more soldiers died or higher numbers were needed for any reason they didn’t want to draw more lines so came up with a clever system. They simply crossed the line out to symbolize ten, X. When they wanted to state five they simply took half of ten. What is half of X, clearly V. The system continues with many more letters introduced to get through the big numbers. 

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Today we use a positional numbering system. That means that the number we use has a different meaning depending on where it is put. For example, the number 123 is very different from the number 321, even though they contain the same symbols. This is key to the success of the current system and a key issue with the roman numeral system. That system was an additive one, meaning it has no zero, no negative numbers and no matter where you put the V, it means 5, always.

While we can admire the Roman Numeral System as an amazing concept for its time the current evolution is far more advanced and has been key to many of the mathematical discoveries we have made since that time.

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