Joegil Lundquist

Along with children's early lessons in arithmetic, it is enjoyable to teach the Latin words for numbers - both cardinal (UNUS - one) and ordinal (PRIMUS - first). We have so many English words which are based on these fertile roots that it is immediately clear to anyone how profitable it is to make the effort to learn them! But before you begin on the words, it is GREAT FUN to learn the ROMAN NUMERALS!

We have introduced DIGITUS for a special reason. In Latin it meant both "finger" and "number". The ancient folks counted on their fingers, so when they wanted to write numbers down, it was natural to DRAW fingers to show how many! I, II, III, etc. When they came to "four" (4), at first they just used four ones - IIII. BUT when we humans have to deal with more than three of something, it's hard to see at a glance exactly how many there are without counting. SO THE ROMANS DID A VERY CLEVER THING! They had five fingers on each hand to work with just as we do, and they could see that FIVE fingers (IIIII) would only add to the confusion! How to picture the WHOLE HAND?

Drawing all the fingers held up together resulted in a kind of blobby "mitten" effect. But, by holding the THUMB away from the fingers and drawing the shape between, they came up with FIVE - "V"! And for two hands full of fingers, they turned one V upside down and wrote TEN - "X"! (WOULDN'T YOU BE PROUD IF YOU HAD THOUGHT OF IT?) They still weren't quite happy with IIII, though. Now that they had such a good FIVE - "V" - someone said "We'll write one (1) first and then five (V) to say one less than five'!"(IV)

"AND," chimed in another clever Roman, "we'll write five first and then one (VI) after to say 'five and one more' when we mean SIX!" This made everyone happy! THEY HAD BUILT A NUMBER SYSTEM WITH THEIR TWO BARE HANDS!



9- IX


They could count as high as they pleased with this system. A smaller number before a larger one meant SUBTRACT. A smaller number after a larger one meant ADD. All they needed were some symbols for 50 (L), 100 (C), 500 (D), and 1000 (M). Now they could figure out any large number - even the dates of famous events in history! Would your children like to figure these out?

The Norman invasion of Britain - MLXVI (M LX VI) = 1066
Columbus discovers America - MCDXCII (M CD XC 11) = 1492
America declares independence - MDCCLXXVI (M DCC LXX VI) = 1776

Use the number converter below to see what other ROMAN NUMERALS look like. Type in a number between 1 and 2999 in the number field then click the "Convert" Button.


Copyright 1989 by Joegil Lundquist