Math Comprehension Wasn’t Built in a Day: Roman Numerals Can Help

As I was about to turn off my television set the other night at the close of this year’s Super Bowl, I was struck by the irony of the blazing ancient Roman numerals across the screen that proclaimed the annual number of times this decidedly modern American game had been played:

Super Bowl LI

Other than counting professional football games or adorning a fancy watch or two, the practice of using Roman numerals within the mainstream or teaching them in elementary school has gone the way of penmanship, cursive and the dodo.

Perhaps, some of you might remark, that’s as it should be. Like learning Latin, using an abacus or powdering one’s wig, striving to understand Roman numerals seems to foster a history lesson rather than a necessary skill for young people today.

But, from a math perspective, nothing could be further from the truth. Roman numerals help bridge a gap in mathematical comprehension for elementary school-aged children. Here are three reasons why:

Roman Numerals Show Amounts in a Visual Way

When you first learned to draw a “2” and were told it represented two of something, you had to memorize it. The symbol for “2,” or any other number from 0-9 for that matter, is not inherently demonstrative of the value it represents.

In fact, compared to ancient numbering systems, our modern number structure is confusing – especially to young children learning it for the first time.

Thousands of years ago, the human need for keeping track of belongings, animals or anything else gave birth to the counting or tallying systems. Historic people used sticks or pebbles to represent each of whatever they were trying to count.

Tally sticks were also used to mark amounts. Notches were cut into a stick to signify a number of items or perhaps sheep in a flock. The problem with using a unary system, one in which each line represents each item, is that you wind up with a lot of lines. Too many lines for the human eye to be able to decipher quickly and easily how many you actually have.

That’s why many tally systems evolved. When you got to five, you crossed through the previous four lines – to create an easier visual for that number.


It’s hypothesized that Roman numerals evolved from these tallying systems, with each fifth notch eventually being written as a diagonal or “V” and each tenth notch as an “X.” And, so on.

The Roman numeral system creates visual shortcuts for quickly counting and totaling amounts necessary for simple records or contracts.

Roman Numerals Differentiate Numeric Value

Unlike the base ten system we use globally today, Roman numerals are non-positional (do not involve place value). That means each number has a unique meaning. The letter for ten (X) is completely different than the letter for one hundred (C) – whereas in our systems, they are represented by the same numbers in a unique pattern: 10 versus 100. Place value is a critical but difficult concept for very young children to learn. Understanding that the “5” is “1,265” has a different value than the “5” in “542” can be confusing.

Roman numerals do a better job demonstrating the difference in value because the system uses unique characters. “5” is “V” and “500” is “D,” which are totally different – because five and five hundred really ARE totally different.

Roman Numerals Teach Addition and Subtraction

For preschoolers and kindergartners, addition and subtraction usually comes with visual representations of the equation. Apples, toy trucks, lima beans – anything to help associate how values can be combined or taken away from each other.

With Roman numerals, the addition and subtraction is built in! Depending on left or right placement, an “I” represents “less than” or “more than” consecutive numbers. Consider the number line from one to ten:

I One
II Two
III Three
IV Four = One less than Five
V Five
VI Six = One more than Five
VII Seven = Two more than Five
VIII Eight = Three more than Five
IX Nine = One less than Ten
X = Ten

Roman numerals eventually gave way to more modern systems for several reasons, including the need to increasingly account for accounting and represent numbers larger than several thousand and allow for algebraic concepts. Zero was critical to this change which happened around 1300 AD when the Arabs—the world traders- took the concept from India to much of the world.

However, Roman Numerals are still woven through many facets of our culture – from marking the scenes in plays to organizing our thoughts in outlines to letting us know which Star Wars movie is coming out. Having a basic understanding of the Roman numeral system creates a foundation for number visualization and more complicated math concepts – and by the way, they are just plain fun to learn!

Learn more about the history of Roman numerals:

Learn more about teaching them to kids: