Colorado Springs News, Sports & Business

Gazette Premium Content The big game offers stage for ancient numbering system

By Stephanie Earls Updated: February 2, 2014 at 6:14 am

The Big Apple is celebrating the Super Bowl, at MetLife Stadium in nearby East Rutherford, N.J., with an outdoor display of giant Roman numerals set up to wow (and possibly confuse) visitors traveling in for the big game. The 20-foot XLVIII is set up near Times Square, between XLII and XLIII streets.

Yeah, there's a reason we don't use Roman numerals in everyday life.

"I suspect there are about three of us left that know how to do them," said Kim Bolling, a teacher and literacy coach at Grant Elementary in Colorado Springs. "Now it's not routinely taught. I don't believe that we would find any Roman numerals on a standardized test in math."

Dated though it may be, society's interest in the ancient numbering system spikes annually on Super Bowl Sunday, with topical websites and blogs reporting record traffic.

"One of my students said he'd been thinking about them (Roman numerals) because of the Super Bowl and realized he'd seen them other places too, in books and movies," Bolling said.

Roman numerals also show up in the names of monarchs and pontiffs, on statues and in formal classification systems. They lend an air of history and gravitas, implying a staying power that will forever remain unfazed by the mortal coil.

"They're suggestive of a certain grandeur and authority that promoters of things like the Olympics and the Super Bowl would like to connote," said Matthew McGowan, associate professor of classics at Fordham University in the Bronx, N.Y.

With their excellent posture, Roman numerals make a noble impression.

"Carve 1985 in marble, you could make it sort of elegant. But if it's in a Roman numeral, it's guaranteed elegant," said Owen Cramer, professor and chair of the classics department at Colorado College. "If you look at monuments in Washington, you'll find a lot of Roman numeral dates. That conveys the seriousness. It looks more dignified if you use Roman numerals."

Roman numerals are not a lazy man's numerals. Because the value of a symbol depends on its placement relative to another symbol, the act of comprehension often demands a steep buy-in. Even Google goofed the Roman numeral for the upcoming Super Bowl in an info box after the playoff games.

"We look at a number, recognize it and know what it means," said Bolling, who was taught the system alongside other math basics in grammar school in the mid-1960s. "If you look at a Roman numeral, you have to know what the symbols mean and then do some math to figure out the number."

The challenge is also part of the appeal, however.

"It was kind of like a puzzle. It's just deciphering another code," Bolling said.

Scholars debate the system's origin, but the symbols themselves are thought to be a graphic representation of hand gestures. By the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance in Europe, their usage dwindled in most arenas in favor of the Arabic numeral system.

Their use today occasionally veers into practicality but most often has more to do with the implication of a certain tone.

"For the Olympics and the Super Bowl particularly, they have a martial quality to capture the sense of these warriors going out to compete against one another for all the marbles," said McGowan, who is working on a book about dictionary writing in ancient Rome. "They are suggestive of a certain authority."

The Romans invented arena sports, so there's that, too.

"It is supposed to make us think back to the noble stadium sports of the ancient period," Cramer said.

In 2016, however, we will part ways for a while with the familiar Xs and Vs and graduate to Super Bowl L, 50 in Roman numerals.

"It's shorthand for loser, so I can see the problem, especially in the arena of sports," McGowan said.

Cramer agreed that it could pose a challenge, at least until we get comfortable with the new letter-numbers.

"The L, that doesn't look so dignified. It's not going to look nearly as Roman as all these Xs," he said.

An admitted fan of the Xs and Vs, long-time Denver Broncos public relations chief Jim Saccomano is nonetheless looking forward to the new phase in Super Bowl numbering.

"The Broncos have played in (Super Bowls) XII, XXI, XXII, XXIV, XXXII, XXXIII and now XLVIII," he said. "Right now you're at the dicey part, the XLVIII. When you get to 50, then that's easy."

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Contact Stephanie Earls: 636-0364

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