III or is it IV ?

For years I've wondered why the number 4 on a Roman numeral watch or clock is—most often than not—represented by IIII and notiIV.

Clock faces that are labelled using Roman numerals conventionally show IIII for 4 o'clock and IX for 9 o'clock, using the subtractive principle in one case and not in the other.

There are several suggested explanations for this, several of which may be true...

1 The four-character form IIII creates a visual symmetry with the VIII on the other side, which
IV would not.

2 The number of symbols on the clock totals twenty Is, four Vs, and four Xs, so clock makers need only a single mould with five Is, a V, and an X in order to make the correct number of numerals for the clocks, cast four times for each clock...


The numeral IIX and one of the IXs can be rearranged or inverted to form XI and XII.

The alternative uses seventeen Is, five Vs, and four Xs, possibly requiring the clock maker to have several different moulds.

3 IIII was the preferred way for the ancient Romans to write 4, since they, to a large extent, avoided subtraction.

4 It has been suggested that since IV is the first two letters of IVPITER (Jupiter), the main god of the Romans, it was not appropriate to use IV as a number. (Read The Alphabet by David Sacks for the explanation of why Roman letters lacked J and U.)

5 The I symbol would be the only symbol in the first 4 hours of the clock, the V symbol would only appear in the next 4 hours, and the X symbol only in the last 4 hours. This would add to the clock's radial symmetry.

6 IV is difficult to read upside down and on an angle, particularly at that location on the clock.
[Though I see in my image, here, that VI is upside down. Modern watch, I suppose.)

7 Louis XIV, king of France, preferred IIII over IV, ordering his clock makers to produce clocks with IIII and not IV, and thus it has remained.

See more on Roman numerals here.