Babylonian Numbers

In an October blog “Decimals,” I showed you how we use the decimal (base-10) number system to generate the natural numbers we use today in math. In the blog “Mayan Numbers,” I showed you how the ancient Mayan civilization created numbers using a vigesimal (base-20) number system. In today’s blog, we’ll visit another ancient culture and learn how the Babylonian civilization used a sexegesimal (base-60) number system to do math.

Babylonia existed from about 18th c. BC until the 6th c. BC. This nation existed in the southern region of Mesopotamia between the Tigris and Euphrates River. Today, this area of the world is now part of Iraq.

The Babylonians used one of the earliest forms of written expression: the cuneiform script. They wrote in soft clay tablets using a wedge-shaped reed stylus. When the clay was hardened in the sun, the writing permanently became a part of the tablet.
They used just two symbols to define the 59 digits as follows:

The Babylonians wrote their numbers from right to left. The rightmost slot in any number has a multiple of 1. The multiplier for the next slots to the left of this column increased by a multiple of 60. The Babylonians defined their numbers by using one or more of the 59 digits from above. Although the Babylonians understood the concept of nothingness, they did not have a symbol for the digit or value of zero. They would leave a space or use a non-numeric placeholder to indicate that no digit was defined for a position within a number.

Now let’s use this knowledge to translate a Babylonian number (A).

We first translate the Babylonian digits into a Hindu-Arabic number and we multiply it by the multiplier associated with its position (B). We add the values of each position and come up with the value for the Babylonian number (C).