Why use Roman Numerals?

I’ve been searching the web all over, and can’t find an answer:

Why are Roman numerals used in the front matter of books and other publications? (how did this start, and why do we continue to do it?)

It seems to be an antiquated system that no longer has any practical value (if it ever did).


I just want to point out that of course Roman numerals had a value had one point–to the Romans. I don’t think our modern numerals came through Arabia (from India, IIRC) until after the fall of the Empire.

When in Rome…

The practical value was, at the time, they hadn’t invented the zero or place holder. So that’s what they had to work with. So I’m told anyway.

I’ll assume the OP is asking why Roman Numerals are used for numbering a Table of Contents, foreword or preface. I always assumed they were used to distinguish the page numbering for that particular section from the page numbering in the body of the book.

This web-site will give an instant conversion between Roman and Arabic numeral dates.


I find it very useful when researching the date of old books.

I assumed that too. And in particular, if the book is reprinted with additional stuff at the beginning (like a new foreword), and they want to preserve the page numbering of the original text (or they have to, because they’re mechanically reproducing the pages from the original edition rather than re-typesetting them), they can use Roman numerals to number these new pages so that you can distinguish between, say, page vii of the Introduction and page 7 of the main text.

It’s not that I didn’t get the OP, I was just refering to his saying “an antiquated system that no longer has any practical value (if it ever did).”

Why does everything have to have a “practical” value? Why can’t things be used just for style, or historic continuity, or idiosyncrasy, or any other reason whatsoever?

Bravo, Exapno.

I’m with Exapno! I’m sure this is the XXXVIIIth time this week I’ve heard somebody going on about practicality!

(See also the “Who uses grads?” thread in GQ.)


As the Frantics ended one version about Romans converting to Arabic numerals, “I will never understand this new system if I live to be C!”


To answer the OP – it’s because book manufacturers need two distinct numbering systems.

The actual text of the book is numbered in Arabic numerals, of course. But it would be ridiculous to start Part I, Chapter 1 at page 35 because you managed to put 34 pages worth of material that led into the book: title page, table of contents, acknowledgements, introduction by some name writer included to make the book more saleable, etc. The solution is to use two distinct numbering systems: Arabic numeral for the actual text of the book, and something else for the front matter. Now, what comes to mind as an alternative numbering system to Arabic numerals?

Maybe using common characters? Although they do have the drawback of being limited to 25 (or so, depending on exactly which alphabet you’re using).
Today that seems to be the preferred way of enumerating appendices.

But he was already living B.C.!!! :stuck_out_tongue:

I have no problem with it for books and uses previously mentioned in the thread; why the date on movies, though? It’s not like it’s just “decorative and traditional” - I can’t tell when the damned movie was made because the date’s not up there long enough for me to puzzle it out. I find that terribly obnoxious.