Why is the number 4 on Roman style dials written as IIII?
That question I was recently asked by one of our retailers in the Middle East.
Frankly speaking, I was taken aback as I had never contemplated the why but just carried on what my grand-father had done.
So, I started diving into the topic in more detail and noted that on most watch dials following the Roman way of numbering the number 4 is written as IIII. The correct way would be IV, however.
I then started asking some of my fellow watch manufacturers and mind you no-one could come up with an answer. It seemed as if we all just had not paid any attention to the why.
When I started looking at some more dials, I noted that the first four numbers (I, II, III, IIII) are composed of dashes only, the next four (the middle ones so to speak) contain a "V" (V, VI, VII, VIII) and the last four digits are composed using an "X" IX, X, XI, XII). This hold true for watches having no date window. Could this harmony lay at the base of the peculiar syntax of the Roman style dials' number 4?
When I advanced this theory to an old watch maker friend of mine he told me that he was told that the number 4 was written as IIII and not as IV because of the symmetry of the dial. The number 4 is on the same height on the dial as the number 8 which in 'Roman speak' is written as VIII and thus composed of four elements as well. Well one more explanation had come my way and seemed to back up my own theory which was a nice feeling by the way.
A friend of mine who is an optician and sells glasses for a living had another interesting theory on offer. To the eye it is easier to interpret the number 4 in Roman with four dashes as having to take the number 5 (V) and subtract the number 1 to get to four. Nice idea I said but what about the number 9 which is written in Roman as 'IX'? He shrugged and offered me one more coffee.
So I had to do some more research and confronted a historian friend of mine with the various theories. He had another at the tip of his fingers. When looking at a Roman style dial one sees 14 signs on the left hand side and 14 on the right hand side. Well, you have to start counting on the 12 o'clock position and define the right hand side by stopping at the 5 o'clock position. The left hand side starting with the number 6 and cutting off at the 11 o'clock position. According to him it might have been done to even out the risk of bad luck in old times as symmetry was very much coveted back then. Another symmetry theory had come my way.
I was still not sure and started casting my net wider. An acquaintance of mine who is a catholic priest offered a radically different explanation. The Romans were heathens from the point of view of Catholics as they worshipped more than one god. And in ancient Rome the sign standing for their god Jupiter was the IV. Jupiter was the king of gods in Romans' belief. As the first clocks were found on belfries and mostly in catholic parts of Europe it was the catholic clergy who were at the base of the tradition to use IIII for the number 4 on dials. They seemingly did not want to remind their wavering flocks that once upon a time there was more than one deity. And on my way back home I indeed noted that all dials on belfries of catholic churches had the number 4 spelled out as IIII.
To this day I am still not sure where the tradition to use IIII instead of IV on watch dials comes from. But I sure now know of more than one way to explain it.
A yes, when I explained all that to my retailer friend in Dubai, he told me to forget about his question and that he likes Roman style dials nonetheless very much.