Laying the foundation of western thought and philosophy, few civilizations in history have contributed to humanity more than the Greeks. They built on the exceptional mathematics of the Egyptian and Babylonian empires, and were without a doubt the best mathematicians on the planet at that time.

Names like Pythagoras, Archimedes and Ptolemy are so synonymous with mathematics that we recognize them two millennia later. Fast forward to the first century B.C. and the Romans replaced Greek civilization.

The Romans carried a great deal of Greek culture with them. For centuries they were the dominant empire on earth. However, there is one missing element in the Romans contribution to humanity.

They had no notable contributions to mathematics, or mathematicians for that matter.

The Romans built roads, invented the water wheel, and constructed vast aqueducts that we marvel at today. How can that be?

Roman numerals.

The Roman numeral system is an extremely complex (and irrational) system of numbers. The system does not make sense, because ”zero” does not exist, which makes all higher level mathematics impossible.

Beyond that Roman numerals follow an additive system. When certain values are reached they are added to a new symbol.

There is also a subtractive element that makes the numbers easier to write, but adds complexity to equations.

As you see, simple math can become complex when using Roman numerals. Because of the additive and subtractive properties of Roman numerals an extra step is required along the way.

Imagine trying to do algebra, yet alone calculus with Roman numerals. Two millennia ago the Romans thought they had the ideal numbering system, Today the concept is laughable.

A complex numbering system prevented an entire civilization from advancing in mathematics, science, banking and astronomy.


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Posted by:Sam Solomon

I'm a designer, writer and tinkerer. I currently lead workflow and design systems at Salesloft.