Why should we teach Roman numerals?


In my local paper this morning, I read about how a North Carolina state commission plans to recommend changes to our teaching standards for mathematics. One of the topics that they want to bring back: Roman numerals. Why? According to my exhaustive 30 seconds of Internet research, the only practical applications of Roman numerals are: I) understanding Super Bowl numbering, and II) reading the time on old-fashion clocks.

But I don't need convincing. I believe that there are other advantages of teaching Roman numerals. The main lesson is this: the world has not always revolved around "base 10" numbering, and actually it still doesn't today. Having the ability to express numbers in other forms helps us to understand history, passage of time, technology, and even philosophy*.

In the popular media, binary (base 2) is famous for being "the language of computers". That may be so, but binary is not usually the language of computer programmers. When I was a kid, I spent many hours programming graphics on my TI 99/4A computer. I became proficient in translating decimal to hexadecimal (base 16) to binary -- all to express how the pixels would be drawn on the screen and in what color. Due to lack of practice and today's availability of handy tools and higher-level programming languages, I have since lost the ability to calculate all of these in my head. I also lost the ability to solve any Rubik's Cube that I pick up -- there go all of my party tricks.

But the SAS programming language retains many fun math tricks, including the ability to express numbers in many different ways, instantly. Here's an example of one number expressed six (or 6 or VI or 0110) different ways.

data _null_;
  x = 1956;
  put  / 'Decimal: '     x=best12.;
  put  / 'Roman: '       x=roman10.;
  put  / 'Word: '        x=words50.;
  put  / 'Binary: '      x=binary20.;
  put  / 'Octal: '       x=octal10.;
  put  / 'Hexadecimal: ' x=hex6.;

The output:

Decimal: x=1956
Roman: x=MCMLVI
Word: x=one thousand nine hundred fifty-six
Binary: x=00000000011110100100
Octal: x=0000003644
Hexadecimal: x=0007A4

You might never need some of these number systems or SAS formats in your job, but knowing them makes you a more interesting person. If nothing else, it's a skill that you can trot out during cocktail parties. (I guess I attend different sorts of parties now.)

* For example, the number 'zero' has not always been with us. Introducing it into our numbering system allows us to think about 'nothing' in ways that earlier societies could not.


About Author

Chris Hemedinger

Director, SAS User Engagement

+Chris Hemedinger is the Director of SAS User Engagement, which includes our SAS Communities and SAS User Groups. Since 1993, Chris has worked for SAS as an author, a software developer, an R&D manager and a consultant. Inexplicably, Chris is still coasting on the limited fame he earned as an author of SAS For Dummies


  1. I 'bumped into' my 6th grade math teacher on Facebook. When we reconnected, I commented on how one of her lessons is one of my favorite middle-school memories. We all had to come up with a numeric system and use it to display a calendar month. Mine was based on the Roman system, but used symbols instead of letters. A number of classmates chimed in with their own recollections; one did a base-31 system, so every day was unique. The teacher was surprised at how vividly we all remembered this one lesson -- 40 years later!

    • Chris Hemedinger
      Chris Hemedinger on

      Jenni, your story reminded me of puzzles in the computer game Myst. The game introduced a numbering system for a fictional culture that was central to the game, and as a player you had to figure out the system from a series of context-related cues. That is, there was no key available -- you had to divine your own. Challenging, but rewarding when you figured it out!

    • Chris Hemedinger
      Chris Hemedinger on

      Yes! When I watch film credits all the way through, I can put my skills to the test. No cheating with IMDB!

  2. Without this vital education the future generations will never get the joke about the Roman soldier holding up 2 fingers to order five beers ✌

  3. Sounds like we enjoy the same kind of parties Chris ;-)

    Our 5 year old son had a school project to show a representation of a number between 1 and 20. As the project outline didn't stipulate an integer, I was encouraging him to do pi... In the end he chose 19 and I had fun teaching him the roman numeral representation and seeing him present it. Next, to get him coding in SAS and to run your code to the class using SAS Studio!

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