History Snippets: Measurement

“History Snippets” serializes small bits of research from an unfinished test project. The theme is technology and natural events that shaped our modern world.

The two tables published here translate early Greek units of measurement, and their numbering system. Such tables are utterly useless for everyday modern life. If you should one day find yourself reading Herodotus or other early Greek translation, suddenly these measurements are indispensable, and you’ll hope you remember where to find them. Modern units of measurement have been left in the table (even though the original project, which required them, was scrapped).

It’s revealing to contrast the vast differences in scale of time and distance that occupied the thinking of modern vs. ancient minds!


Table 1. Useful Units of Measurement

most data with thanks toWikipedia

Unit Culture Type Description
dactylos Greek length finger breadth (about 2/3 inch)
inch English length 1/12 English foot
foot English length 304.8mm
meter Europe length originally defined as 1/10,000,000 of the distance between the equator to the North Pole, through Paris. 1000 mm = 1 meter, or about 3 Aeginan pous. 1,000 meters = 1 kilometer
pous Greek length foot; Attic foot = 296mm; Aeginan foot=333mm
stadion Greek length distance of about 165 meters (Attic)
caliber English diameter decimal fraction of an inch; 50 caliber = 1/2 inch
drachma Greek weight 6.3g (Attic) = 0.22 ounces
ounce English weight 28.35 grams (g)
pound English weight 16 English ounces (453.6 g = about 2/3 Greek mina)
ton English weight 2,000 pounds
second Modern time The common short time measurement in daily life. About the time it takes to say the English phrase “one thousand and one” in a normal speaking voice, or the time an object takes to fall when dropped from a height of 32 feet; 1/3600 of a day.
units of the day Modern time 24 hours per day; 60 minutes per hour; 60 seconds per minute
units of years Modern time 12 months averaging 30-31 fixed days each, per year. 1 year = 365-1/4 days; 10 years = 1 decade; 100 years = 1 century; 1,000 years = a millenium.
year numbers Gregorian calendar The western world venerates the birthdate fixed for a great religious figure and numbers its calendar from that birth year. Dates before that year are appended with the notation “BC”. Dates bearing a notation of “AD”, or none at all, are presumed to fall after the birth year.
large numbers Modern various million=1 thousand thousand

billion=1 thousand million

trillion=1 thousand billion

speed of light velocity physics a universal constant. In a vacuum, 184,284 miles per second.
light year distance physics The distance light travels in one year. The Sun, at 93,000,000 miles distance, is only 8 light-minutes away. Andromeda, the closest galaxy, lies 2.5 million light years distant.

Comments on mensuration: Greeks, Romans and the English made a mess of the units of measurement. You can see from the references to Attic and Aeginian units that our mixed metric and English system is just as confusing. We are taught to thank the Persian world for inventing Arabic numerals, though Wikipedia references the first indisputable “Hindu-Arabic” use of a written symbol for the placeholder “zero” as found in the Bakhshali manuscript, of around the 1st century BC, in India. Other systems for the representation of zero, with or without an actual placeholder symbol, occurred shortly thereafter, also originating in India.

Table 2. Greek Numbering System

Numerous references are available on this subject and some of them seem needlessly complicated to the hurried reader in search of information. The Greeks did not have characters representing the numerals 1-9 as such and did not use a zero placeholder; they used their alphabet names in a numeric context. The name of the Greek letter for the number 5 is Pi; the derived name of the corresponding number is pente. Speaking of Pi, is is useless to try to type a table of characters in HTML, due to the scarcity of Unicode fonts; most of the Greek letters just do not render on the browser. The table below is a .gif illustration posted on a most useful page by Michael Lahanas. Lahanas expands on the counting system (how do they represent the number 488?) and its close ties to the Egyptian system, probably due to trade links – all in all, a most rewarding read for such an obscure subject!

The second Greek numbering system, a hybrid

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