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Why is the Roman Numeral IIII Used Instead of IV?

It appears that no one really knows why is the roman numeral IIII is used instead of IV on clocks and watches, but there are quite a few theories. The best discussions I've found on the subject are Gordon Uber's FAQ: Roman IIII vs IV web page and Donn Lathrop's To IV, or Not to IV web page.

It is likely that the use of IIII instead of IV has several causes. Some of the theories include:

  1. Using IIII brings more symmetry and balance to the dial. The IIII offsets the heavy VIII that is found on the other side. This theory, I think, is probably the strongest theory for the use of IIII.

  2. The strict use of IV instead of IIII wasn't common until after the middle ages, the Romans generally used IIII. Clocks (and watches) are patterned after sundials, which were in use long before the middle ages. I think this is probably the second strongest reason. There is a lot of tradition in watches and clocks.

  3. Using four I's instead of one I and one V makes it easier to cast the metal numerals. This theory seems kind of weak to me. Why would watchmakers and clockmakers, who spend gobs of time making complicated mechanisms, fancy dials, and beautiful cases, choose IIII over IV just because it is slightly easier to make?

  4. The first two letters of Jupiter would often be written as IV because curved letters are hard to cut into stone. Therefore some people thought it was sacrilegious to use IV. Of course, few people still worshiped Jupiter when the first clocks were being made, so this doesn't seem to be a very strong theory on its own. It may have influenced the Romans in their use of IIII instead of IV.

  5. There are various stories about how various kings either declared IIII to be correct, or objecting to the use of IV because they were King Something the IV. The problem with these stories is that the use of IIII generally preceded these various kings, the theory doesn't explain the wide spread usage of IIII across all kindoms, and the lack of details and contradictions in the stories make them all sound like urban legends.

  6. Most watch and clockmakers were just ordinary folks, but it would have taken a doctor or a registered nurse to give an "IV." (This bad joke is complements of Steve Maddox.)

While I'm not an expert, I believe the information on this page is correct. Please send suggestions and corrections to the webmaster.
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