Try to explain why the ancient Romans wrote big numbers the way they did, and the best answer one can come up with is "Istaec sunt quo modo sunt." (That's the way things are.) The Romans used letters for numerals and had no symbol for zero. I was one, V five, L 50, C 100, D 500, M 1,000; for big numbers, the Romans piled on the letters, so our 1,588 was their MDLXXXVIII. For writing really big numbers, such as 1 million, the Romans used shortcuts, so they had more time for their orgies and aqueduct-building.

Step 1

Write big Roman numbers using an overstrike, or a horizontal line drawn over the letter-numeral. Using the overstrike multiplies the letter-numeral by 1,000. Thus, a V with an overstrike is 5,000 (5 multiplied by 1,000), for instance.

Step 2

Write 1 million using an overstrike over a capital M, or Roman 1,000, since 1,000 times 1,000 is 1 million. Pad out your answers to the test in Mr. Caesar's math class using two Ds with overstrikes, 500,000 plus 500,000, or 10 Cs with overstrikes, at 100,000 each.

Step 3

Write the Roman 1 million in your essay on the fall of the Roman Empire using your computer's word-processing program. In an open Microsoft Word for Windows or Macintosh document, press the "Ctrl" and "F9" keys; brackets will appear in your document. Type "eq \o(M,¯)" (without the quotation marks) between the brackets. In a WordPerfect document, click on to the "Format" menu. Go to "Typesetting." Click on "Overstrike." When the "Overstrike" dialog box appears, type "M" followed by the "¯" symbol (without the quotation marks). Press "OK."