The Numbers Game

I heard some grumbling the other day on the radio questioning why the NFL uses Roman numerals to mark Super Bowls. The only championship game that wasn’t romanized was number 50 – perhaps because the symbol for it, L, doesn’t project as masculine an image as an X, V, or I.  And, L often stands for Ladies Room or Lesbian as in LGBT.

As Classical Italians, we at the Italic Institute would of course fight any attempt at Arabicizing the Super Bowl. (Actually, numbers were of Hindu-Persian origin and adopted by the Arabs. Italian mathematician Leonardo Fibonacci found this system in Muslim Spain and North Africa. A book he wrote in 1202 introduced them as well as the zero and the decimal place system to the Latin world.)

Before Fibonacci Italy and Europe used Roman numerals – that quite logical extension of your fingers. In fact, digitus is Latin for finger (Italian: dito, plural dita).  The hand has always figured largely in Italian thinking.  My name, for example, mean left-handed in both Latin and Italian (manus + sinistra).  Hand gestures are an integral part of speaking Italian, and probably was of Latin.  Romans drew vertical lines for digits 1 to 4, a V – the open hand space between the thumb and first finger – for 5.  One V mounted on an inverted V came to represent 10 (X).  And, a finger straight up with the thumb horizontal was 50 (L).  Beyond the hand, C (100) was the first letter of centum and M (1,000) the first letter of mille.

What is really amazing is how the Romans, or any ancient peoples, were able to build or compute without numbers, zeroes, or decimals.  Obviously, they did.  Here’s an example of “simple” Roman addition.  The key is to break down the figures by letter:

The Romans used addition and subtraction to multiply and divide but that is too mind-boggling to present here.

Like the Chinese, the Romans had their own abacus.  A bit more user-friendly as columns were marked for units, tens, hundreds, etc.  While the Chinese used hollow beads on strings the Romans sometimes used buttons or small stones (calculi).  Do I have to tell you where our word calculator came from?

Back to the Super Bowl, it is not the only target for time-revisionists. For some years now there has been a struggle among academics and publishers to replace BC and AD (Anno Domini). The words “Before Christ” and “Year of the Lord” are apparently offensive to many non-Christians and atheists.  The new buzz words are BCE (Before the Common Era) and CE (Common Era).  Thus far, many traditionalists are resisting the pressure, but for how long?  I’m sure school text books are well on their way through the transition.

Don’t be surprised if one day there is a movement to rename the months of July and August because they were named after “brutal Romans” Julius Caesar and Caesar Augustus.  Out with the old Euro time-keeping!

The Super Bowl may be more than just a game. It may be the next target for change-makers. -JLM

1 thought on “The Numbers Game”

  1. Italians didn’t stop at the abacus either. Italian companies have developed products that are of fundamental importance in modern society, such as the Olivetti-developed transistorized mainframe computer systems (Olivetti Elea) and, in 1964, the world’s first commercial desktop computer, the Programma 101, invented by Pier Giorgio Perotto.

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