Oneof the things I've wondered about for as long as I’ve been a wonderer is how did the Romans do it? And Monday, while I was running in the cool rainy weather, listening to a podcast interview with some famous movie animator, for some reason I wondered about it again. How did the Romans conquer the world, rule the wide variety of people, collect all those taxes, and build aqueducts to move water hundreds of miles, using Roman numerals? How did they accomplish anything without a place-value numbering system?
In my opinion, you can't do anything with Roman numerals except try to look impressive. There are a few remaining users: the Super Bowl, Popes and Kings, some clock faces, literary outlines, the Olympics, and the names of Army corps. Publishers used to use Roman numerals to indicate the date of publication, and I suspect they did it to intentionally obscure the actual date so readers couldn’t know the true age of a book, but they don't use them anymore.
Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibnitz invented their own mathematical notations and numbering systems in order to develop and describe calculus. The Romans couldn't even do 1st-grade math with their numbering system. Who knows how to subtract IV from XXIX? No one does without converting to regular numbers. And how do you express zero with Roman numerals? You can’t.
Yet, the Romans built some spectacular things. How did they do it? Was their secret unlimited slave labor? Could they have had so many people working on a design that the math didn’t matter? Those aqueducts - maybe they built multiple aqueducts of various designs, and then tore down the ones that didn’t work, a grand municipal trial-and-error method based on slave labor? I don't think so.
“Who cares?” you might ask, and I can’t blame you if you do. The only reason I thought about Roman numerals while listening to an animator describe his work was because only a few minutes before I had been listening to a different podcast by Erwin McManus. Something he said was still ringing in my ears. He compared our lives to Roman numerals, saying our value is determined by who we have next to us. I couldn’t stop thinking about what he said.
For example, a Roman "I” can stand for one (I) or two (II), or three (III), or four (IV), or nine (IX), and so on, based on what symbol is next to it. Unlike our place-value numbering system, it is a relational numbering system. The value of a symbol is based on who it’s related to.
I’ve seen in my own life, as I get older, that my true value comes from who I stand next to rather than my actual place value. As McManus said, I’m like a Roman numeral, whose value is determined by the other numerals around it.
So it is for all of us. Our value in this world is based less on absolute place value and more on who we are next to, who we are related to. Our value comes from who we help, who we learn from, who we team up with, and who we serve alongside.
I don’t think I’m finished thinking about this, though. Maybe during tomorrow’s run it will occur to me that we are all more like differential equations, or more like cuneiform, or maybe even more like cave paintings. What do you think?
“I run in the path of Your commands, for You have set my heart free.” Psalm 119:32