“The Romans were not dupes.” This sentence, found on page 46 of Chrisomalis's Reckonings, has the form of a constative statement but is actually a kind of performative utterance. It appears in a chapter dedicated to the Roman number system. In general, when we learn Roman numerals at school, we are also taught about the awkwardness of the system. Instead of the two characters needed to write 28 in the Indian-Arabic-Western ciphers (Chrisomalis notes the difficulty of speaking simply of the Arabic or the Indian system, since there is more than one of each), the Romans needed no fewer than six characters to write the same number, XXVIII. The Roman system, moreover, is not practical for the performance of even simple mathematical operations such as addition or multiplication. Why, then, did it last for almost two millennia? Why did it resist a dozen alternative systems known in Europe...

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