Why is it that certain pages in English-language books are numbered using Roman numerals, but other pages are numbered using (so-called) Arabic ones?

Has it always been this way? Or was the split once different? Or wasn’t there a split at all?

Surely page numbers were not always used; I’m pretty sure the Romans never used Arabic numerals in any event.

When did we start doing it this way, and why?

2 Answers 2


Briefly put, Roman numerals are an alternate form of enumeration. It makes it easy to see the difference between the foreword and the actual content of the book. This is also the reason it's used in nested lists.

The history is that page numbering and Arabic numerals started to become popular in English at about the same time. It wasn't until centuries later that prefaces began to be numbered like this.

History of page numbers

I found a source that explains the history really well:

Numbering pages started out not as a tool for readers but a guide for those who physically produced books. In Latin manuscripts copied in the British Isles as far back as the eighth or ninth century, numbering was sometimes used to ensure that individual sheets of parchment were collated in the correct order. Use of numbering was sparse. It’s been estimated that around 1450—just before the birth of printing in the West—less than 10 percent of manuscript books contained pagination.

Fifty years later, the proportion of now-printed works with pagination was much higher. Part of the change reflected the new role of page numbers. Rather than strictly being tools for compiling leaves in the proper order, by the 1510s scholars were starting to refer to page numbers of printed volumes in their own writing.
When Did Books Get Page Numbers—and Are They Even Useful Anymore?

Please note that this only applies to the "body" of the work. Also, a number of the earlier works had folio numbers, not page numbers. The preface material would usually not be numbered at all (it would sometimes be numbered with the body, other times it would have numbered sections). This book (1575), for example, has no numbering in the preface (except for what was penciled in later), although the rest of the volume is foliated.

It should also be noted that well into the 17th century some books still didn't have any page numbers.

Roman vs. Arabic

Roman numerals were the original number system used in Europe. Fibonacci is credited with popularizing Arabic numerals in Europe in 1202 with his book Liber Abaci. The book Numerical Notation: A Comparative History gives some more information about this.

English didn't see any Arabic numerals for quite some time, however. And it also took some time for the numerals to become popular and eventually replace Roman numerals in almost all contexts. Apparently, an important factor was the printing press, which created a new literate group unattached to the traditional Roman numerals.

The first time an Arabic numeral was used in an English book was William Caxton's book Reynard in 1481. It was a signature mark, "a2", which can be seen here at the bottom of the page. It was only the signature mark(s); the rest of the book used Roman numerals. Caxton published 6 books like this, until he went back to Roman numerals for the signature marks in 1484.

More and more books would have a mix of Roman and Arabic numerals starting in 1505 (where the date used Arabic numerals). The paper Numbering by the books: the transition from Roman to Arabic numerals in the early English printing tradition looked at all the books in the Early English Books Online database between the start of English printing and 1534 that contained both Arabic and Roman numerals (which was 55 books). Of those 55, there were 26 with Roman numeral foliation and 17 with Arabic numeral foliation. In 1523, the first book to only use Arabic numerals was published.

My own research found that only the earliest books (before 1600) used Roman numerals as page numbers (for the body). Prologues were either part of the body in terms of pagination or were not paginated at all.

Prefatory Material

The earliest instance I can find of book in English with separate pagination for the prologue and the rest of the book is Moderation truly stated (1704). The preface, entitled "A Prefatory Discourse" is over 50 pages, so it's convenient to have it be numbered.


Roman numerals are used specifically to enumerate the pages of the front matter — title page, foreword, etc. — whilst Arabic numerals are used to enumerate the pages of the rest of a book.

  • 1
    It's a "foreword", not a "forward"....
    – Hellion
    Commented Jan 2, 2013 at 16:00
  • 3
    But this doesn't say why the front matter should be treated differently -- that is, why not use a continuous sequence; or number it separately with Arabic numbers. I guess having two sequences of Arabic numbers might be confusing, but many Bibles do it.
    – Andrew Leach
    Commented Jan 2, 2013 at 16:01
  • 12
    I believe this is because the front matter can change considerably between printings, but the Text itself remains consistent - Page 10 of a specific edition is Page 10, regardless of whether you have XXII or XXXV pages of front matter. Commented Jan 2, 2013 at 16:05
  • 1
    Well, yes. But why is it done that way, and when did it start? When did it start? Is this a peculiarly English-language tradition, or is a Latin-script one? Or both or neither? What about books written in other Western scripts, like Greek or Cyrillic? Do they do the same thing?
    – tchrist
    Commented Jan 2, 2013 at 22:58
  • 1
    @tchrist Very good questions. In Spain, it likely came into use probably between 1531 and 1605 (Based on some quick checks of editions of the Celestina and Don Quijote) and the rest of Europe probably around about the same time give or take a decade or two. Latin letters and Roman numerals were normal for folio in 8 numbering (aIr, aIv, aIIr, aIIv … aVIIIv … bIr, bIv …), so the tradition was already there for the Roman numerals. So perhaps the question ought to be when (and why) the switch to Arabic numerals. Commented Nov 3, 2014 at 0:39

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