Updated: Jul 29, 2020
Want to branch out from the standard mile and metric systems in your story? Here are five ancient systems of measurement to inspire your fantasy world building.
Related reading: Magic made real: 6 world building tips for writers
1. Pes (plural pedes) – Ancient Rome
AKA the Roman Foot. The pes was divided into 16 digits (fingers). At 0.97 feet or 296 millimetres, one pes is three inches shorter than the standard foot used today.
In Ancient Rome, 5000 pedes equalled a roman mile (mille passus/passum) and literally meant “one thousand paces” with one pace equalling five pedes.
Roman units of measurement included, but were not limited to:
Digitus (finger) = 1/16 of a pes
Pollex (thumb) = 1/12 of a pes
Palmus (palm width) = 1/4 of a pes
Pes (roman foot) = 1 pes
Passus (pace) = 5 pedes
Furlong or stade (stadium) = 125 passes or 1/8 of a Roman mile
Mille passus (Roman mile) = 5000 pedes
Leuga (league) = 7,500 passus.
2. Royal Egyptian Cubit – Ancient Egypt
Developed about 3000 BCE, the Egyptian hieroglyph for the royal cubit is the symbol of a forearm and it was based on the length of the arm from the elbow to the extended fingertips. One Royal Egyptian Cubit was equal to 52.5cm. There were 28 fingers (djeba) in one cubit.
The cubit was used across the ancient world, including Ancient Greece. Because of this, the length varies between cultures.
Egyptian units of measurement included, but were not limited to:
Djeba (finger/digit) = 1/28 of a cubit
Shesep (palm) = 4 djeba
Deret (hand) = 5 djeba
Pedj-aa (large span) = 14 djeba or 1/2 a cubit
Cubit = 28 djeba (fingers) or 2 pedj-aa (spans)
Knet = 100 cubits (roughly 52.5 metres).
Iteru (river measure) = 200 knet (10.5 kilometres).
3. Chi – Ancient China
Chi originated in Ancient China and is often referred to as the “Chinese foot”, thought its exact length has changed over time and between regions. In some cases, lengths even varied between professions with surveyors working with one length and engineers another (imagine the confusion that might have caused). It was later standardised as one-third of a metre.
The chi units of measurement included, but were not limited to:
Cùn = 5 centimetres
Chi = 10 cùn (50 centimetres)
Zhàng = 10 chi (5 metres)
Yin = 10 zhàng (50 metres)
Li = 10 yin (500 metres).
4. Hasta - India
Hasta is synonymous with cubit and the traditional Indian unit is measured from elbow to fingertip, as was used until relatively recently when India converted to the metric system mid 20th century.
The smallest measurement—the agular—is “equal to the middle phalanx of the middle finger of the officiating priest”*. Each Hasta has 24 agular.
The hasta units of measurement included, but were not limited to:
Agular = around ¾ of an inch.
Hasta (cubit) = 24 agular (1.5 feet/0.45 metres)
Danda (pole) = 4 hasta
Rajju (rope) = 8 danda
5000 danda = 1 krosha (3000 feet / 914 metres)
Yokana = 4 krosha (12000 feet / 3657.6 metres).
Curiously, Ancient India had a word for the distance a horse could travel in one day: ashvin. One ashvin was between three and five krosha—around 24.6 kilometres (13.3 miles) to 40 kilometres (25.5 miles).
*Chakrabarti, V. Indian Architectural Theory and Practice: Contemporary Uses of Vastu Vidya. 1998.
5. Mijl - Old Dutch
Like many ancient units of measurement, the old Dutch system was based on body parts: thumbs, palms, arms and feet. Thanks to the economic and maritime prowess of the Dutch Republic in the 17th century, these units were adopted in countries across the world, including South Africa and the Dutch East Indies until the metric system took over.
The old dutch measurement system, includes but was not limited to:
Duim (thumb) = 2.574 centimetres (almost 1 inch)
kleine palm (small) = 3 centimetres (1.18 inches)
grote palm (large) = 9-10 centimetres (3.9 inches)
Voet (foot) = 27-30 centimetres (10.6-11.8 inches) varies between regions.
El (arm) = 68.8 centimetres (2.7 feet)
Roede (rod) = 3.5-4 metres (11.5-13.1 feet) varies between regions again. A different type of roede was also used to measure area and equalled around 15sqm or 450 pieces of peat.
Mijl (mile) = about 5 kilometres.
When the metric system became popular, the old Dutch names were kept in the Netherlands, but the unit sizes were adjusted to conform to the new standard.
Mjil = 1 kilometre
Roede = 10 metres
El = 1 metre
Palm = 10 centimetres
Duim = 1 centimetre
Streep = 1 millimetre.
Obviously, these are a small sample of the numerous ancient units of measurement you could draw upon for a work of fiction.
That said, I wouldn't completely rule out the metric system yet—it might not be ancient, but it is older than I realised. It was first proposed in 1670! And though it took time to gain some favour, the French government officially adopted it in 1795. From there it began to spread.
Read more: Origin of the metric system