How to Read Roman Numerals

Roman Numerals Chart:

  • The upper case letter I represent Arabic 1.
  • The upper case letter V represents the Arabic 5.
  • The upper case letter X represents the Arabic 10.
  • The upper case letter L represents the Arabic 50. (not used in this document)
  • The upper case letter C represents the Arabic 100. (not used in this document)
  • The upper case letter D represents the Arabic 500. (not used in this document)
  • The upper case letter M represents the Arabic 1,000. (not used in this document)
  • A bar placed over a letter or group of letters multiplies that value by 1,000. (not used in this document)
  • If the letter to the right represents an equal or smaller value the numbers ADD. XXII is 22.
  • If the letter to the right is a larger value than the numbers SUBTRACT. IV is 4. Only I is used with V or X, X with L or C, and C with D or M.
  • There is no zero!
  • Both C and M often still appear in commerce mixed with Arabic therefore if someone orders a quantity of 5M, they want 5,000 not 5 million.
  • A few more samples: XCV = 95, XIII = 13, XCIX = 99, XLIX = 49

What are Roman Numerals?

Roman numerals may look like numbers. But they are not. Most of them resemble letters like V, M, and C. But in reality, they were pictograms, at least at first. Then, they became more and more similar to what we now know as Latin script.

The Roman Empire and Roman Numerals

As the Roman Empire grew and took in all of Europe, the numerals incorporated some Greek mathematical concepts. And with them, the letters that meant one thousand and one hundred. Some even suggest they may have copied the letter for fifty as well.

No matter the origins, one can only read Roman numerals after being taught how to read them. In fact, as you will see, one cannot base a judgment on intuition alone.

The first five numerals also need additional explanation.

The first five Roman numerals

One

Just like the Chinese, Romans used a line to represent a single unit. But unlike their Asian counterparts, they used a vertical line.

Why?

Because they used fingers to count.

To this day, Italians use their fingers in a precise way when expressing numbers. They lift the index finger—in some regions, the thumb—to start counting.

Two and Three

Stretching the index finger equals one. For two, you need to extend the middle finger. And to represent three, you point the thumb outwards.

For Romans, the thumb also meant Yay or Nay, depending on the direction it points out.

Today, some Italians may start counting by stretching their thumb. In that case, the order would be the thumb, index, and middle finger. Roman numerals depict the same scene by adding vertical lines.

Four and Five

To understand how Romans wrote the number four, we need to look at the number five first.

Just like the previous numbers, another gesture points to its meaning.

Have you ever raised your hand to attract someone’s attention?

The gesture is the same most people make when signaling a waiter. With the thumb and index finger out, the hand looks like gesticulating the letter V.

Over time, the symbol for five became the letter V. However, the fourth Roman numeral is IV. The reason is that by putting an index finger in front of the other hand, they could signal the number four from great distances. In other words, IV means one less than five.

Romans were soldiers, and they fought in battalions. In other words, they needed a reliable way to communicate on the battlefield. Also, they could not count on modern binoculars. So, they developed numbers that were easy to reproduce and understand from far away.

Number Position and Order

Romans used the same method to write the remaining numbers.

Here are the rules for creating Roman numerals:

  1. You can only place one line before a greater number to indicate that it is one unit less. In the same way, you can use some symbols to subtract from bigger units as long as the overall method maintains its logic. More on this later.
  2. The first letter can only be followed by a lesser numeral or a letter that represents a smaller number.
  3. As Romans did not use spaces or commas in writing, if you read a character bigger than the one that comes next, the author must have listed another number.
  4. Just like with the vertical lines, you cannot repeat a symbol more than three times in a row.

You just learned to count up to eight in the Roman numeral system!

Given these rules, you now know that you can only write numbers like 9, 14, 19, etc. by placing a vertical line before the letter that equals the following unit.

Similarly, you learned how to write three other numbers by adding vertical lines after the V. You can also understand why Romans added more letters to avoid confusion when writing numbers like 10, 15, and so on.

Other Symbols in the Roman Numerical Notation

Nine and Ten

The letter for ten is X. If you think about it, you will soon realize that an X is nothing more than two letters V stacked upon one another. Of course, one is upside down.

As the previous rules explained, we can add a vertical line to write 9. So, nine is IX.

Fifty

Romans kept using the same method to write all the numbers up to 50. They would double and triple the X to write numbers up to 39. But then, they reached a plateau.

At first, they drew a vertical line across the middle of the letter V to represent the number 50. They got this idea from the Greek letter psi (Ψ). But soon, usage morphed from a mix of the vertical line and the V to a more stylized form that later became the letter L.

Using an L was more practical. Also, it allowed for writing forty, which is ten less than fifty. That is, XL.

One Hundred, Five Hundred, And One Thousand

The Latin word for one hundred was centum. And the letter for the same figure is C. However, the two are not related.

As surprising as it may sound, the letter C is the lazy representation of the Greek letter theta (θ). Some scholars believe that the Romans had to use half of it because of another reason. That is, the Greek letter phi (Φ), which the Greeks used to write several numbers depending on where they put an apex.

In any case, the Romans started using the letter phi to write One Thousand. But at one point, they changed it into CIƆ. The number one thousand was the only one that required three characters. As you can imagine, that sparked confusion. So, the writers started connecting the three letters.

The first C slanted over the I in the middle. In the same fashion, the backward C leaned back toward the I.

This is why we now have the letter M!

Using the Roman Numeral D for 500

The letter D for 500 has a comparable origin as the M for 1,000. This letter was born because the letter D is what you get when you connect the I in the middle of CIƆ to the backward C.

The Romans thought of getting rid of the first C to halve the number One Thousand. Of course, this choice also avoided any mistakes. Often, the sculptor would carve the letter I and backward C deeply to prevent confusion. So, forming a new letter proved to be a more effective way to speed up the writing on stones and tablets without losing any meaning.

All Roman Numerals in Order

NumberRoman Numeral
1 in Roman NumeralsI
2 in Roman NumeralsII
3 in Roman NumeralsIII
4 in Roman NumeralsIV
5 in Roman NumeralsV
6 in Roman NumeralsVI
7 in Roman NumeralsVII
8 in Roman NumeralsVIII
9 in Roman NumeralsIX
10 in Roman NumeralsX
11 in Roman NumeralsXI
12 in Roman NumeralsXII
13 in Roman NumeralsXIII
14 in Roman NumeralsXIV
15 in Roman NumeralsXV
16 in Roman NumeralsXVI
17 in Roman NumeralsXVII
18 in Roman NumeralsXVIII
19 in Roman NumeralsXIX
20 in Roman NumeralsXX
21 in Roman NumeralsXXI
22 in Roman NumeralsXXII
23 in Roman NumeralsXXIII
24 in Roman NumeralsXXIV
25 in Roman NumeralsXXV
26 in Roman NumeralsXXVI
27 in Roman NumeralsXXVII
28 in Roman NumeralsXXVIII
29 in Roman NumeralsXXIX
30 in Roman NumeralsXXX
31 in Roman NumeralsXXXI
32 in Roman NumeralsXXXII
33 in Roman NumeralsXXXIII
34 in Roman NumeralsXXXIV
35 in Roman NumeralsXXXV
36 in Roman NumeralsXXXVI
37 in Roman NumeralsXXXVII
38 in Roman NumeralsXXXVIII
39 in Roman NumeralsXXXIX
40 in Roman NumeralsXL
41 in Roman NumeralsXLI
42 in Roman NumeralsXLII
43 in Roman NumeralsXLIII
44 in Roman NumeralsXLIV
45 in Roman NumeralsXLV
46 in Roman NumeralsXLVI
47 in Roman NumeralsXLVII
48 in Roman NumeralsXLVIII
49 in Roman NumeralsXLIX
50 in Roman NumeralsL
51 in Roman NumeralsLI
52 in Roman NumeralsLII
53 in Roman NumeralsLIII
54 in Roman NumeralsLIV
55 in Roman NumeralsLV
56 in Roman NumeralsLVI
57 in Roman NumeralsLVII
58 in Roman NumeralsLVIII
59 in Roman NumeralsLIX
60 in Roman NumeralsLX
61 in Roman NumeralsLXI
62 in Roman NumeralsLXII
63 in Roman NumeralsLXIII
64 in Roman NumeralsLXIV
65 in Roman NumeralsLXV
66 in Roman NumeralsLXVI
67 in Roman NumeralsLXVII
68 in Roman NumeralsLXVIII
69 in Roman NumeralsLXIX
70 in Roman NumeralsLXX
71 in Roman NumeralsLXXI
72 in Roman NumeralsLXXII
73 in Roman NumeralsLXXIII
74 in Roman NumeralsLXXIV
75 in Roman NumeralsLXXV
76 in Roman NumeralsLXXVI
77 in Roman NumeralsLXXVII
78 in Roman NumeralsLXXVIII
79 in Roman NumeralsLXXIX
80 in Roman NumeralsLXXX
81 in Roman NumeralsLXXXI
82 in Roman NumeralsLXXXII
83 in Roman NumeralsLXXXIII
84 in Roman NumeralsLXXXIV
85 in Roman NumeralsLXXXV
86 in Roman NumeralsLXXXVI
87 in Roman NumeralsLXXXVII
88 in Roman NumeralsLXXXVIII
89 in Roman NumeralsLXXXIX
90 in Roman NumeralsXC
91 in Roman NumeralsXCI
92 in Roman NumeralsXCII
93 in Roman NumeralsXCIII
94 in Roman NumeralsXCIV
95 in Roman NumeralsXCV
96 in Roman NumeralsXCVI
97 in Roman NumeralsXCVII
98 in Roman NumeralsXCVIII
99 in Roman NumeralsXCIX
100 in Roman NumeralsC
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