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I very often hear how "stupid" the Roman number system (I, II, III, IIII/IV, V, VI, etc...) was, and I'm often prepared to agree, except for low numbers, where it can look very beautiful for titles and stuff.

However, I'm wondering if the reason I find it "stupid" is just that I grew up with the "Arabic" (0, 1, 2, 3, ...) system, and thus I'm just not used to the Roman one, or if the Roman one truly is inferior.

It seems strange to me that the clever and wise Romans, who build all those amazing buildings and temples and things, would have come up with such a silly and impractical number system. It doesn't add up to me, somehow.

Could it be that it did work for the kind of math they needed for their, by today's standards, primitive contraptions, but it would have "fallen apart" as soon as they had reached a certain point where more and more intricate machines are built and bigger and more numbers need to be crunched constantly?

But if such had happened, I'm sure they would have either changed the number system or realized that it can be used perfectly fine with very large numbers, and in fact is much easier to work with thanks to this or that smart method.

I never see Roman numbers in any kind of complex math context. It's 100% Arabic numbers, including for the internals of database software and stuff like that.

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  • $\begingroup$ I think the first part of your question “if the ... system was so bad” is key. I was never under the impression that it was bad, just different. $\endgroup$ Dec 25 '19 at 9:06
  • $\begingroup$ It was their system, they grew up using it so it worked for them. This is a discussion or opinion question... $\endgroup$
    – Solar Mike
    Dec 25 '19 at 9:21
  • $\begingroup$ They didnt have science based engineering $\endgroup$
    – joojaa
    Dec 25 '19 at 10:07
  • $\begingroup$ See How to Multiply Roman Numerals. $\endgroup$
    – Transistor
    Dec 25 '19 at 14:16
  • $\begingroup$ Geometry was a separate discipline entirely. It took the development of algebra to begin to relate geometry and analysis. So shapes didn't have numerical expression at the time. $\endgroup$
    – Phil Sweet
    Dec 25 '19 at 14:27
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What makes you think the ancient Romans did scientific or engineering analysis or used any form of mathematical analysis? Most of the mathematics currently used by engineers was developed much later - 17th to 18th Centuries.

The ancient Greeks understood $a^2 + b^2 = c^2$, in relation to right angled triangles (Pythagoras' Theorem). They knew about ellipses by using two vertical sticks embedded in a sand pit and drawing and ellipse using a stick constrained by a rope around the two vertical sticks. The Cartesian system of co-ordinates only became widely known after Rene Descartes published the idea in 1637.

Euclidean geometry is about the relationship of shapes that are drawn. The mathematics behind it all came much later.

Engineering done by the ancients (Babylonians, Greeks, Romans, Egyptians & the ancient Chinese) was the result of trial and error experimentation - try something and it works, do it again; if not do ascertain why it failed and try something else.

Development of engineering came about by pushing limits and observing the results and building upon accumulated knowledge.

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The Romans (and all other older civilizations) never used numeric mathematics for their engineering. The materials used (mainly stone and wood) are very hard to treat mathematically; and are quite forgiving in reality, so there is no need for this.

What they did use, was geometry for aesthetic reasons - but no numbers are needed to do geometry.

Engineering mathematics essentially started with Hooke's law and formulas built on it for statics; together with logarithms which made multiplication and exponentation much easier to handle. All that happened in the 17th and early 18th century.

H.M.

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  • $\begingroup$ This is not entirely true. They had accounting systems for bills of materials which could only be derived from mathematics. The Romans discovered "minimum performance" of materials and asked that to all their stonemasonry through experimentation. They understood limits and failure mechanisms but not as advanced as Hooke's law. Most of their structures were gravity based which required a basic understanding of first moments of area. $\endgroup$
    – Rhodie
    Dec 26 '19 at 11:57
  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for this information - I have to dig into the books I have once more! $\endgroup$ Dec 26 '19 at 13:06

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