Today is the feast of All Souls, when Catholics pray particularly for the repose of the Souls in Purgatory–and so it’s appropriate to take a look at some of the tombs of the Christian faithful, which can be found in many of the churches of Rome. Most of the inscriptions are in Latin, which we can read (can you? If not, you’ll be glad to visit these churches with us!). But on top of that, the dates are invariably written in Roman numerals.
It seems that we all learned the Roman numbering system when we were in grammar school … but if you haven’t used it on a regular basis since then, odds are high that you’ve forgotten a lot about it! Take a look at the above photo and see what you can remember: the person buried in this tomb died in 1566.
To complicate matters further, the rules are broken pretty frequently, for reasons which are unclear. This person died at the age of 48, which should be written as XLVIII. But it isn’t, and nobody knows whether this is a simple error, or maybe someone was trying to be elegant, or fill up the space. Or something.
While we’re looking at this second photo, notice that the final I in the numeral is taller than the others. Was that an error too? Well, you can find that phenomenon on other tombs as well, like this one. This person, the inscription says, “lived for 59 years, five months, and twelve days,” and once again the final I is taller than all the rest.
The reason for this is simple: the practice of elongating the final I of a Roman numeral developed in documents pertaining to money. Imagine, for example, that you’ve just taken out a loan, and the banker is holding your promissory note. If the number ended in XII, like the figure we see on this tomb, it would be a simple matter for a sneaky banker to add another I to the figure after you’d signed the note! But if the final I is longer than the other letters, his fraudulent addition would be impossible.
The dates and ages on the tombs aren’t monetary amounts, obviously, but the practice had become standard enough that it was employed by stonemasons when cutting tomb inscriptions too. Think about it: a vain lady wouldn’t have wanted her age at her death exaggerated, right?
Then there’s the headache-inducing numerical system known as Apostrophus, which seems to have developed from the Etruscan–i.e., pre-Roman–way of writing numbers involving a backwards letter C. This person died in 1793, which in ordinary Roman numerals would have been written MDCCXCIII. (Trust us.)
Once you remember how Roman numerals work, it’s easy to turn this into a kind of game, moving from tomb to tomb and “translating” the numbers. But let’s remember that in each of these tombs are the remains of a human being, who lived and died and may still be in need of our prayers! “Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. May they rest in peace. Amen.”