Greek Numbers

Michael Lahanas

Αρχαία Ελληνική αρίθμηση

Griechisches Zahlensystem und warum mit Archimedes es mehr Plätze gibt im Paradies

It seems to us that after the invention of writing the largest discovery was the use by humanity of the so-called decimal notation. M. V. Ostrogradsky (1801-1862)

Arithmetica, Gregor Reisch 1503. A Symbolic Image: Boethius and Pythagoras in a mathematical Competition. and the mathematician Euclid, amongst others.

Trade explosion

An analysis by Dr Stephen Chrisomalis of McGill University in Montreal, Canada, showed striking similarities between Greek alphabetic numerals and Egyptian demotic numerals, used in Egypt from the late 8th Century BC until around AD 450.

Both systems use nine signs in each base so that individual units are counted 1-9, tens are counted 10-90 and so on. Both systems also lack a symbol for zero. Dr Chrisomalis proposes that an explosion in trade between Greece and Egypt after 600 BC led to the system being adopted by the Greeks.

Greek merchants may have seen the demotic system in use in Egypt and adapted it for their own purposes. "We know there was an enormous amount of contact between the Greeks and Egyptians at this time," Dr Chrisomalis told BBC News Online.

Plausible theory

Professor David Joyce, a mathematician at Clark University in Worcester, US, said he had not examined Dr Chrisomalis' research, but thought the link was plausible.

"Egyptians used hieratic and, later, demotic script where the multiple symbols looked more like single symbols," said Professor Joyce. "Instead of seven vertical strokes, a particular squiggle was used. That's the same scheme used in the Greek alphabetic numerals."

Traditionally, the system is thought to have been developed by Greeks in western Asia Minor, in modern day Turkey. Between 475 BC and 325 BC, alphabetic numerals fell out of use in favour of a system of written numbers known as acrophonic numerals. But from the late 4th Century BC onwards, alphabetic numerals became the preferred system throughout the Greek-speaking world. They were used until the fall of the , Republic