Of all the archaic forms of communication passed down through history, Roman numerals might be the most resilient. This method of counting originated around 900 or 800 BC and persisted in casual usage all the way to the 15th century. That's pretty good for a system that was always more than a little ungainly, especially when compared to the Arabic numeral system that has become the standard by which just about everyone does math. The Roman system uses symbols from the Latin alphabet (I, V, X, C, D, M) -- symbols that also, of course, denote letters in a different context. For modern users, that overlap can be confusing. The lack of place value and a symbol for "zero" also make simple arithmetic operations quite laborious when done the Roman way.
Despite these drawbacks, Roman numerals survived thanks to institutions like governments and religious bodies using them to harken back to the glory days of the Roman Empire. Royal families and popes used them. They'd pop up on timepieces, currency, and the Olympic Games every few years -- but not much else. Then, two seismic pop culture events occurred in the span of a few years: the fifth Super Bowl and the sequel to The Godfather.
Super Bowl V, played on January 17, 1971, was the first NFL championship game to use roman numerals as part of its naming convention. Prior to that, the games were either referred to as the "AFL-NFL World Championship Game" or just the "Super Bowl." The official, NFL-approved story goes that roman numerals were chosen to "clarify any confusion that may occur" because the Super Bowl is played the year after the chronologically recorded season. For example, the Super Bowl that decided the champion for the 2018 NFL season, Super Bowl LIII, took place in the year 2019. Only once has the Super Bowl eschewed the use of roman numerals since 1971: Super Bowl 50 in 2016, because it was felt that "Super Bowl L" would confound football fans.
In 1974, three years after Super Bowl V, The Godfather: Part II brought Roman numerals to the big screen. Movie sequels were much rarer in those days. There was the Thin Man series of comedic detective films in the 1930s, the loosely connected Universal Monster movies (your Draculas, Frankensteins, Mummys and the like), and the ongoing James Bond series. These proto-franchises didn't bother numbering their individual installments, so each movie had its own unique title: Another Thin Man, Bride of Frankenstein, Son of Kong, The Pink Panther Strikes Again, and From Russia With Love. By throwing "Part II" on the follow-up to The Godfather, it was implied that this movie was the continuation a saga, that more might follow. After all, if there's a "Part II," why couldn't there be a "Part III" (as there was, though it wouldn't arrive for another sixteen years)? The Godfather didn't invent sequels, but its use of Roman numerals did make sequels feel more important. Article Image
The use of Roman numerals in pop culture took off from there. The year after The Godfather: Part II, 20th Century Fox released The French Connection II. Like The Godfather Part II, this was another high-class sequel to an Oscar-winning film. From then on, Roman numerals conferred a perceived status and gravitas to all manner of filmed entertainments: TV pilots such as Gene Roddenberry's Genesis II and movies like The Exorcist II: The Heretic, Rocky II, Damien: The Omen II, Beverly Hills Cop II, Ghostbusters II, Superman II, and, of course, the Star Wars sequels. With the release of The Empire Strikes Back, George Lucas retroactively added an episode number to the original Star Wars: Episode IV. Therefore, Empire was Episode V.
Legend has it that Lucas was inspired by the movie adventure serials of his youth when he devised the opening crawls and episode numbers for Star Wars. Interestingly, the big serials of the 1940s and 1950s (Flash Gordon, Captain America, Superman, and the like) didn't use Roman numerals. They used standard Arabic numbers, so it stands to reason that Lucas was moved to follow a trend started by his friend Coppola. Roman numerals were also used heavily in the marketing campaigns for the Star Wars prequel trilogy, as the episode numbers were front and center on the posters for The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, and Revenge of the Sith.
Even professional wrestling followed the trend when Vince McMahon's WWE launched their annual supershow, WrestleMania. Naturally, the first WrestleMania in 1984 didn't have a number attached. In 1985, the second edition was called WrestleMania 2, using the Arabic system. But for the third annual show, from Detroit's Pontiac Silverdome, WWE chose Roman numerals. WrestleMania III was the start of a a tradition that would last for decades, cementing the show as pro wrestling's version of the Super Bowl.
Despite how ubiquitous they were in the late '70s and through the '80s and '90s, somewhere along the way, the Roman numeral lost favor. Long-running movie franchises like Star Trek, Superman, and the Marvel started to ditch the numbers. Superman Returns was basically Superman V, or Superman III, if you consider that it ignored plot developments in the third and fourth Superman installment. Instead of Thor 3, audiences were treated to Thor: Ragnarok. Of the 23 Marvel Cinematic Universe movies, only three (Iron Man 2, Iron Man 3, and Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume 2) use numbers, and none use Roman numerals. Star Wars continues to use Roman numerals in the crawls for the Disney sequel trilogy, but numbers were nowhere to be found on promotional items like posters or toys for The Force Awakens, The Last Jedi, and The Rise of Skywalker. Even WWE dropped numbers from WrestleMania in 2015.
So, what happened? Well, for starters, the novelty wore off. While at one point Roman numerals seemed to suggest an implicit classiness, once they started being used for lower brow fare like Caddyshack II and Weekend at Bernie's II, the sheen quickly wore off. Plus, diminishing returns kick in when a series runs long enough. It's hard to create much excitement around Star Trek VIII or Police Academy 7, since those numbers remind you that you're watching a copy of a copy of a copy. Subtitles grew increasingly popular with studio marketing departments, since they allowed each successive installment of a long-running franchise to feel unique, worth seeing. Subtitles convey a feeling or an important plot detail, and make each film stand out. What sounds more appealing: Avengers 4 or Avengers: Endgame?Article Image
WWE might have had the most concrete reason for putting the Roman numerals to bed, though. At the time, wrestling journalist Dave Meltzer reported that WWE owner Vince McMahon felt the numbering of WrestleMania made the event feel old. This isn't an odd thing for a person to say about themselves. (After all, how many people avoid revealing their age?) But an annual event that's broadcast around the world and generates its parent company tens of millions of dollars in revenue? Part of the point is to seem old, to project permanence and tradition and history. That's why the Super Bowl and the Olympics keep trotting out those Roman numerals even after they stopped being easy for the average person to read.
As for movies, they seem to have gone back to the early days of sequel-titling, the better, perhaps, to chart a course forward in a bewildering age of cross-media mega-franchises. The film business is taking a page from those old Thin Man and Frankenstein movies, with their quirky, numberless titles (although the tradition never entirely died out, as movies like More American Graffiti, Aliens, and Hot Shots Part Deux can attest). Chances are, we'll circle all the way back to Roman numerals just in time for Super Bowl C.