Weird & wonderful

IIII vs IV: the battle of the Roman numerals

Have you ever noticed that many clock faces show “IIII” instead of the well-known “IV” to represent the numeral 4? I bet you haven’t.

Clock face with Roman numeral "IIII"

I have a fascination with Roman numerals. There is something about their elegance and stateliness that has made me decide that I will never own a watch with numerals other than Roman numerals. It’s Roman numerals, or no numerals at all…

Yet, despite my acute attention to detail and love of old watch faces (which is a story for another day), it took me years to notice that most watches with Roman numerals display “IIII” instead of the “IV” that I know to represent “4″. In fact, I didn’t notice it on my own.

Somehow, by some strange, jumbled trip down the internet rabbit hole, I stumbled upon the Wikipedia entry on Roman numerals, and discovered the discrepancy there. From that day on, I’ve never been able to look at a watch face with Roman numerals and check whether the 4 is “IIII” or “IV”.

So, what’s the story?

There are many, as it turns out. Some sources say that using “IIII” balances the numeral with “VIII”, which is opposite 4 on a clock face, creating a more pleasing and compositionally harmonious face to behold. Another source says that “IIII” was favoured when the large majority of populations (read: peasants) couldn’t read or count well, and that it was easier for them to count the number of strokes for 4 than recognise that “V” represents 5, so “IV” is 5-1, which equals 4. I’m not sure how they navigated IX (the Roman numeral for 9) in that case.

The Romans – from whom Roman numerals obviously derive – are thought to have avoided “IV” because it was similar to “IVPPITER”, the Latin word for Roman god Jupiter.

Perhaps my favourite tale around this strange, largely immaterial mystery, is that King Louis XIV of France preferred “IIII” to “IV” and simply ordered that all clocks in France be made to his preference, and this just caught on elsewhere.

Whatever the strange reason behind this, I think it’s quite a cool and quirky fact that most don’t know.

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2 thoughts on “IIII vs IV: the battle of the Roman numerals

  1. I have this weird love for Roman Numerals too and have not noticed the clock situation. So I said I will obviously keep an eye out…and guess what? Found two clocks in Mr. Price Home-one with IIII and the other IV. Totally had a little smile on my face when that (nerd alert) :p

    • Hahahaha – welcome fellow Roman numeral nerd! I’ve found that the Made-in-China type clocks often have the “IV” whereas watches in jewellery stores usually have “IIII”… :)

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