Romans and Zeros

also posted in the Ultrapedia forums
With copious apologies to John Cleese et al…

…Apart from sanitation, medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh water system, and public health…

…What have the Romans done for us…?

Roman Numerals maybe? And just how much of a gift was that then? However bright the Romans were there is one thing they lacked, and that is the concept of the number ZERO. And just why was this? Please submit your answers on the back of a twenty-pound note and post it to our box number – thanks… Either that, or tell us in our (soon to be) lively forums.

The Romans were aware of zero, but didn’t actually think that you could ‘label nothing’.  So, instead of inheriting a numbering system from the Romans, what they left us was Roman Numerals.

You see the concept of a number zero was heretical to the Romans, and not just to the Romans either. The ancient Greeks considered the number zero to be more of a philosophical concept than an actual number. The ‘Axiom of Archimedes’ (c 300 BC) states that if you add two identical numbers to each other, then the result had to be a different number. Thus; one plus one is two.  Zero broke this axiom because zero plus zero equals zero. 

Think of it like the colour black – is black really a colour? It could be argued that black isn’t a colour at all. Black is simply what there is when there is no colour. 

As for creating the Ultrapedia Library then, the most important thing the Romans left us was a system of printing dates that leaves a lot of people perplexed even to this day. 

Roman Numerals therefore are prevalent on the title page you see in the Library Browse area of the website. Lower case numerals are also used in many ‘Prefaces’ of the books in the library. 

The Roman numerals on the title page pertain to either the books publication year or the ‘volume number’ of ‘multivolume books’. This then, is one of the reasons we ‘top and tail’ the books – we cannot be certain that the OCR Farm has correctly recognized the date of the book. 

Eg: MDCCCLXXIX (1879) is a bad candidate for OCR. We therefore manually add the books publication date. More problems caused by numerals crop up when it comes to creating a coherent numbering system for recognised books. 

Eg: The first page in the recognised edition of the book is (almost) always the ‘new title page’ as described earlier in this blog. While the actual first page of the printed book could easily be page 20, 30, or even 100 if the print version (original) had an extensive preface or other leader pages – dedications, printers notes, errata, table of contents etc.

Thus the ensuing chaos that Roman Numerals has left in the Ultrapedia Library is largely unresolved. Please tune-in later for more details…