How To Do Roman Numerals

I am writing 100 How-To essays. It is a big project. Here is why I am doing it. This is essay 3 of 100.

For those of you who are reading this post because you want to know how to do Roman numerals, and not to read a long essay about math, wait no longer:


I spent so many years just rejecting math. I thought algebra was cool but that was because I could understand it and because my crush was in that class and I liked to stare the little freckle behind his ear. And then in high school I had a trig teacher I liked because he was the advisor for the Stand Up Comedy Club. Mostly, nobody did stand-up comedy in the club, except like maybe one guy, and eventually Amelia tried it and I thought that it was cool that a girl was trying stand-up.

All the cool kids were in calculus. By “cool kids” I mean deep-nerds who hung out together. I was never going to be an actual cool kid (still in algebra 2, owning multiple North Face jackets), but it seemed like it would be fun to be in a group of people and not all alone by my locker listening to Ben Folds Five on a DiscMan and staring at the orange ground tiles. I forced my way into calculus senior year by taking a summer pre-calc course, even though I wasn’t ready for it. I failed the summer course. I failed the calculus class. Mrs. Culpepper pretended I passed by assigning a book report at one point. I knew she was only assigning it because she didn’t want to be the sole reason I didn’t get into college.

And guess what? I took calculus AGAIN in college! And I got a C! I worked so hard to get that C. I still know nothing about calculus, except the theoretical concepts (which does nobody any good), and that writing the integral of e to the x power makes it look like you just wrote “sex.”

I put math away forever and was like, “OK cool now that I am adult and there are calculators on my phone I will never need you ever again, BYEEEEE.”

Except. I like very old books that you can get for very low prices because the books were complete failures and no one wants to buy them now like no one wanted to buy them then. “Making Moldes for Shorthand.” “The Calories You Invent.” “A Woman’s Guide To Oatmeal Baths.” That kind of thing. These books are full of nonsensical information written by authors who apparently didn’t need science to get book deals. 

I like to turn to the publisher’s page and ask myself what company bought the book. This has been especially interesting to me since I sold my first book (two times), and had my first book rejected (one million times). There are so many publishers, and so few of them have real staying power; a lot of times the silly book was published by a silly publisher — a trade imprint only concerned with the making of horse shoes or whatever. Truly, I haven’t ever been able to totally place what makes me feel so cozy around ancient failure. Maybe it’s the physical embodiment of someone’s gumption; and when the fame and fortune didn’t come, maybe they were humiliated, but the world never ended. Maybe I want to celebrate them, generations later, for simply trying.

So anyway, in many books that I love / annoy Luke by overfillling our puny, already-packed bookshelves with, it’s difficult to tell the date of their publication, because the date is written in Roman numerals. “Roman numerals” fit squarely inyo the category of “math,” which is sort of ironic, because the whole deal is you turn numbers into letters. 

You may be saying to yourself, “Sophie, just type ‘roman numeral converter’ into Google.” Yes, human friend living in the 21st Century. I understand that math is no longer necessary because computers are slowly conspiring to make us stupid so they can take over the world. But the other day I thought, “I wish I could just look at this stack of Xs and Vs and know what year it represented without having to automatically de-idle GChat.” On that particular day, I had an hour of free time. 

So I decided to learn the Roman numerals. It would be very handy for crosswords*, I reasoned.

I was deterred at first because when I typed “How do I learn Roman n” into Google, it prompted me with “How do I learn Roman numerals in one day?” This suggested that it ordinarily takes longer than a day to learn Roman numerals. I did not have longer than a day. I had one hour.

Lucky that I soldiered forth, though; it definitely takes less than an hour to learn Roman numerals. The main trick is that you need a pneumonic device for the letters. WikiHow suggested “My Dear Cat Loves Xtra Vitamins Intensely.” Which I liked. I changed it in my mind to “My Dear Cat Loves “X-Men," “(The) Voice,” & Indian food.” Feel free to make up your own “My Dear Cat Loves.” I guess I am going to suggest you don’t go with “Xtra Vitamins Intensely” because it’s like, why do you know that? Have you been feeding your cat Xtra vitamins? Why? Maybe she doesn’t LIKE them, but she just seems super mellowed out because YOU ARE DRUGGING YOUR CAT. 

Another good one is, “Maybe Don’t Cut (your) Lover’s X-Rated Vagina, Idiot.”

(M=1,000; D=500; C=100; L=50; X=10; V=5; I=1.)

Once you’ve got your pneumonic device, things get pretty simple. Because you were required to make tedious outlines in your U.S. History class, you already know your way around one through ten. Everything else works basically the same way as one through ten. When I’m translating Roman numerals into digits, I start in the thousands place and move in. When I’m translating the other way, I start with the ones place and move out. 

The single thing that is a little confusing is getting from 40 to 60, or from 400 to 600. As you will remember from learning one through ten when you were a teenage child, “four” is “IV” (it’s like, WHY!?!?); and “six” is “VI.” So that means that 40 is “XL” and 60 is “LX.” I suggest writing out your own chart as a sort of quiz. But if you don’t want to, the chart above will guide you. You can print it out and put it in your wallet (along with your photo of your friend’s dog that you say is your dog for when you meet a hot stranger who is into dogs).

After I felt I knew the Roman numerals, I took a bunch of free quizzes online. This was a fun activity, because I was good at it. It reminded me of that brain-click that happened in fourth grade when suddenly the multiplication tables snapped into place. 

The beauty of math is that there is so little in life that you can get right and be sure about it. Math may be as close as a human can come.

*Crosswords are the main thing I can’t understand my obsession around. WHY do I do crosswords? I don’t really buy into that whole “they’re-soooo-good-for-your-brain” theory. But they don’t bring me visceral pleasure like pizza fries or “Scandal,” and they don’t help me actively learn like books. My neck cramps like when I’m absorbed with my phone, but I don’t get the numbing joy-jolt of playing Candy Crush while texting my actual crush simultaneously. I don’t know what my deal is. I do the crossword every Sunday.