Most people today take for granted the custom of numbering kings, so that James Stuart is James VI of Scotland and James I of England. I am not certain that any society used this before the sixteenth century, although I have heard a story that it was invented in 14th century England to deal with the problem of two successive kings called “Edward, son of Edward” (if a document bore the date “the fifteenth day of April in the third year of King Edward son of Edward” was it written under the Edward who was losing Scotland or the Edward who was going to pick a fight with France?)
I certainly don’t think that any ancient society practiced this, and it makes it difficult for modern historians to deal with all the Artaxerxeses and Ptolemies (the Aramaic documents from Bactria, for example, just give the king’s throne name so could date to several different reigns). By the fourth century BCE the Greeks had started to use “by-names” or nicknames to distinguish between kings, and in the third century Manetho numbered Egyptian dynasties but usually not kings, although some versions of his king list number a handful of kings in the last few dynasties. While numbering kings sounds simple, in practice there is room to disagree about which claimnants to the throne should be counted, so scholars today resort to such infelicitous forms as “Ptolemy IX Soter II (Lathyrus)” in hopes of being perfectly clear.
Does anyone know more about how this custom began and spread? Is it a unique product of late medieval Europe, or was the system invented in several different places?
Further Reading: Manetho’s History of Egypt courtesy of Bill Thayer