Numbers, dates and telling the time


Romans used letters to represent numbers. The number one was written as “I”, five was “V”, ten was “X”, fifty was “L”, 100 was “C” and 1000 was “M”. A Roman 4 was usually written as “IIII”, and 9 as “VIIII”, although by the 4th century they could be written as “IV” (5 minus 1) and “IX” (10 minus 1). 

More numerals could be made by adding them together – so when Perry sees “XXII” on the milestone, he has to add up 10+10+1+1 to get the number 22. The Romans had no sign for zero!

4th century stone coffin of a girl called Chrysogane Siricium, at the Museum of Ancient Arles. Photo Sylvie Barbaroux via FaceBook

On the third and fourth lines of the coffin above, you can see: 


which is an abbreviation for:

years 3, months 2, days 27

So the inscription says that she lived 3 years, 2 months, and 27 days.


Romans got up at dawn and worked in the morning. 

After lunch at about midday, people went to the bathhouse for their health and, in towns, to socialise.

They had dinner in the late afternoon. 

Most people went to bed at sunset, because it was hard to do much without electric lights or any street lighting. 

The Roman day was divided into twelve hours, but the length of hours changed with the place and the seasons, because the first hour started at sunrise and the twelfth was the hour before sunset! 

Romans didn’t have clocks, so they used shadows to help them tell the time. The farming manual of Palladius, written in late antique Gaul, gives a list of shadow lengths each hour for every month, for people to use to tell the time. Sundials were used in towns. Romans didn’t count minutes or seconds. 


3rd century Roman calendar mosaic showing farming activities throughout the year, southern Gaul. Photo Carole Raddato via Wikimedia Commons

Today, we still use the Roman names for the 12 months, but they didn’t number the days from 1 to 30 or 31. Instead, they named key dates, such as the first or middle day, and counted back from those days. The first day of every month was called the Kalends, so when Valentia says “the first day of November” in chapter 17, her words in Latin would be “Kalendis Novembribus”. November 13 (Valentia’s birthday) and January 13 (when the Emperor arrives) were called the “Ides” of those months. In some months (e.g. March) the Ides were the 15th day. The idea of a week made up of seven days was probably not widely used in everyday life before the spread of Christianity (and a Sunday rest day), later in the 4th century.

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