How to Read and Write Roman Numerals

Roman numerals are an ancient way of writing numbers. The Romans invented them, and they remain in use today all around the world. To read and write Roman Numerals, you only need to know how to recognize a few symbols: I for one
V for five
X or XL for ten
L or LX or LL for fifty

Roman numerals are a system of writing numbers that originated in ancient Rome. They have been used to write numbers ever since, and they are still widely used today. If you want to learn how to read and write Roman numerals, then this article is for you.

Roman numerals clock illustration.

Despite the collapse of the Roman Empire millennia ago and the widespread usage of Arabic numerals (1, 2, 3, etc.) in contemporary civilization, Roman numerals continue to appear on a regular basis. We see them in the names of popes and emperors, as well as prestigious events like the Olympics, the Super Bowl, and WrestleMania (who can forget WrestleMania III’s drama and excitement?). They’re commonly etched on the cornerstones of structures to mark the year they were built, and they’re often seen on the pillars of docks and the exterior of ship hulls to show how high the water is. Roman numerals are also employed to denote the year of production on films for some strange reason.

Many people have trouble remembering the Roman numerals for numbers 1 to 10 (they often get stuck on 4 and 6… ), let alone going above and beyond that (does the “I” come before or after the “V”?). Up until 50, I’m OK, but beyond that, things start to become hazy for me. I was reading an ancient book the other day and came across a lengthy string of Roman numbers that was supposed to represent a year, but I couldn’t make sense of it. I figured it was past time to brush up on my Roman numbers.

Here’s a simple primer to help you figure out if 5 is a Roman number or 500 is a Roman numeral.

A Quick Overview of Roman Numerals

There are many theories on how Roman numerals came to be. The numerals were established largely as a counting system for trade, with the most accepted story being that they originated as notches on tally sticks. “One” was symbolized by a single notch. Every fifth notch was cut twice to make a “V,” and every tenth notch was crossed twice to produce a “X.” The Romans then applied this tally method to writing, assigning specific values to Roman letters such as I 1, V 5, X 10, and so on.

Another explanation claims that the numbers came about as a result of finger counting. Each finger indicated a different number. A hand raised upright with fingers and thumb apart was symbolized by the number “V” (five). Both hands were held erect and the two thumbs crossed each other in the number “X” (ten).

The absence of a character to indicate the number 0 is a distinguishing and severely restricting feature of the Roman numeral system. There is also no mechanism to express negative or decimal integers in the system. This all stems from the fact that Roman numerals were created largely for the purpose of counting and keeping track of items in trade. As a result, higher-level arithmetic was and continues to be almost difficult with this method.

Even when the Roman Empire fell apart, its numbers remained in use across Europe until the Middle Ages. Hindu-Arabic numerals did not completely supplant Roman numbers until the 14th century. Even after the emergence of the former, the Roman system persisted as an archaic homage to all things ancient and classic.


Roman Numerals: How to Read Them

1. Understand the symbols and their meanings.

Once you’ve mastered the fundamental symbols and their accompanying values, reading Roman numerals is a breeze.

There are seven fundamental symbols in the language. You can make almost any number with these seven symbols (with the exception of exotic numbers like negatives, decimals, etc.).

Table of roman numerals.

2. The value of each sign is (usually) put together from left to right when one or more numerals are used to produce a number.

To make a number, the letters are ordered in decreasing order of value from left to right:

  • II = 2
  • 30 = XXX (10+10+10)
  • LII = 52 (50+1+1).
  • MMLVII = 2,057 (1,000+1,000+50+5+1+1).
  • You get the idea…

3. A smaller number in front of a bigger numeral indicates that the lower numeral should be deducted from the larger numeral in certain cases.

When you approach near to a number with a unique symbol, the subtraction rule generally kicks in. Take, for example, number four. It’s just one digit away from the number 5, which has its own symbol (“V”). Instead of writing four “I”s, you’d write “IV,” which means you subtract one from five to get four. It’s that simple.

What about nine? It’s just one digit away from the number ten, which has its own symbol (“X”). You’d write “IX” instead of “VIIII” (5+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1 (1 subtracted from 10).

What about the age of 40? It’s just ten points away from 50, which has its own sign (“L”), so instead of XXXX, you’d write XL (10 subtracted from 50). Remember that this rule applies whenever a lower number appears in front of a larger value.

Here are some other applications of the subtraction rule:

  • XXIX (10+10+(10-1)) = 29
  • CCCXCIX = 399 (100+100+100+(100-10)+(10-1)
  • CDXLIV = 444 ((500-100)+(50-10)+(5-1))

It’s worth noting that the subtraction rule is a contemporary norm. Inscriptions from ancient Rome demonstrate that, although it was utilized by the ancient Romans, it was not employed regularly. Instead, they’d keep adding digits until they reached the desired number. As a result, the number 4 was written as IIII while the number 9 was written as VIIII. They didn’t even use V to signify 5 in certain cases, instead chiseling out IIIII.

In addition, the ancient Romans used “double subtractives” to express numerals on occasion. As a result, 18 is often written as XIIX (10+(10-2)).

When reading Roman numerals on old buildings in Rome or reading ancient documents on archaeological excavations in Egypt (yep, I’m writing to Indiana Jones here), keep these variances in mind.

4. If you see a bar above a number, it means you should increase it by 1,000.

Rather of putting 4,000 as MMMM, you might just write it as IV (4 x 1,000).

More instances of this rule in conjunction with the rule of subtraction:

  • IVCMXLIX = 4,949
  • VICCCLIV = 6,354
  • IXCMLXXII = 9, 972

The bar multiplier sign, like the subtraction rule, was employed irregularly in ancient Rome. They were more inclined to keep adding Ms until they reached the desired 1,000 figure. The bar multiplier isn’t used very much even now. You won’t notice it when years are written in Roman numerals (as they commonly are in movies to signify the year of creation). As a result, the year 2014 would be abbreviated as MMXIV.


Many medieval writings have two vertical lines before and after the number, as well as an overline, to show that the multiplier bar has been raised by 100,000. As a result, |IV| equals 400,000.

Keep in mind that the bars and line multipliers are unlikely to appear unless you read ancient and medieval writings. It’s simply interesting stuff to be aware of.

So there you have it. You’ve mastered the use of Roman numerals. 

Sicut Romani periti, numrate!



The “roman numerals converter” is a tool that converts Roman numbers from one format to another.

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