Case Study: Roman Numerals

You’ve most likely seen Roman numerals, even if you didn’t recognize them. You may have seen them in copyrights of old movies and television shows (“Copyright MCMXLVI” instead of “Copyright 1946”), or on the dedication walls of libraries or universities (“established MDCCCLXXXVIII” instead of “established 1888”). You may also have seen them in outlines and bibliographical references. It’s a system of representing numbers that really does date back to the ancient Roman empire (hence the name).

In Roman numerals, there are seven characters that are repeated and combined in various ways to represent numbers.

  • I = 1
  • V = 5
  • X = 10
  • L = 50
  • C = 100
  • D = 500
  • M = 1000

The following are some general rules for constructing Roman numerals:

  • Sometimes characters are additive. I is 1, II is 2, and III is 3. VI is 6 (literally, “5 and 1”), VII is 7, and VIII is 8.
  • The tens characters (I, X, C, and M) can be repeated up to three times. At 4, you need to subtract from the next highest fives character. You can’t represent 4 as IIII; instead, it is represented as IV (“1 less than 5”). 40 is written as XL (“10 less than 50”), 41 as XLI, 42 as XLII, 43 as XLIII, and then 44 as XLIV (“10 less than 50, then 1 less than 5”).
  • Sometimes characters are… the opposite of additive. By putting certain characters before others, you subtract from the final value. For example, at 9, you need to subtract from the next highest tens character: 8 is VIII, but 9 is IX (“1 less than 10”), not VIIII (since the I character can not be repeated four times). 90 is XC, 900 is CM.
  • The fives characters can not be repeated. 10 is always represented as X, never as VV. 100 is always C, never LL.
  • Roman numerals are read left to right, so the order of characters matters very much. DC is 600; CD is a completely different number (400, “100 less than 500”). CI is 101; IC is not even a valid Roman numeral (because you can’t subtract 1 directly from 100; you would need to write it as XCIX, “10 less than 100, then 1 less than 10”).

Checking for thousands

What would it take to validate that an arbitrary string is a valid Roman numeral? Let’s take it one digit at a time. Since Roman numerals are always written highest to lowest, let’s start with the highest: the thousands place. For numbers 1000 and higher, the thousands are represented by a series of M characters.

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