Perkataan ini berasal dari Yunani δημοκρατíα dari δημος bermaksud "rakyat", ditambah pula dengan κρατειν bermaksud "memerintah", dengan kata hubung íα; yang memberi maksud "Diperintah oleh Rakyat". Terma ini kadangkala digunakan untuk mengukur sejauh mana pengaruh rakyat diatas kerajaannya. Demokrasi secara ekstrem boleh dilihat dalam sistem kerajaan seperti anarkisme dan komunisme (menurut teori Karl Marx ia merupakan peringkat terakhir pembangunan sosial dimana demokrasi adalah diamalkan secara langsung , dan tiada kerajaan yang bebas dari kehendak rakyat).
] Zaman KunoThe term democracy is first appeared in ancient Greek political and philosophical thought. The philosopher Plato contrasted democracy, the system of "rule by the governed", with the alternative systems of monarchy (rule by one individual), oligarchy (rule by a small élite class) and timocracy (ruling class of property owners). Although Athenian democracy is today considered by many to have been a form of direct democracy, originally it had two distinguishing features: firstly the allotment (selection by lot) of ordinary citizens to government offices and courts, and secondarily the assembly of all the citizens.
All citizens were eligible to speak and vote in the Assembly, which set the laws of the city-state. However, the Athenian citizenship was only for males born from a father who was citizen and who had been doing their "military service" between 18 and 20 years old; this excluded women, slaves, foreigners (μέτοικοι / metoikoi) and males under 20 years old. Of the 250,000 inhabitants only some 30,000 on average were citizens. Of those 30,000 perhaps 5,000 might regularly attend any one or more meetings of the popular Assembly. Most of the officers and magistrates of Athenian government were allotted; only the generals (strategoi) and a few other officers were elected.
A possible example of primitive democracy may have been the early Sumerian city-states. A similar proto-democracy or oligarchy existed temporarily among the Medes (ancient Iranian people) in the 6th century BC, but which came to an end after the Achaemenid (Persian) Emperor Darius the Great declared that the best monarchy was better than the best oligarchy or best democracy.
A serious claim for early democratic institutions comes from the independent "republics" of India, sanghas and ganas, which existed as early as the sixth century BC and persisted in some areas until the fourth century AD. The evidence is scattered and no pure historical source exists for that period. In addition, Diodorus (a Greek historian at the time of Alexander the Great's excursion of India), without offering any detail, mentions that independent and democratic states existed in India. However, modern scholars note that the word democracy at the third century BC and later had been degraded and could mean any autonomous state no matter how oligarchic it was. The lack of the concept of citizen equality across caste system boundaries lead many scholars to believe that the true nature of ganas and sanghas would not be comparable to that of truly democratic institutions.
Even though the Roman Republic contributed significantly into certain aspects of democracy, only a minority of Romans were citizens. As such, having votes in elections for choosing representatives and then the votes of the powerful were given more weight through a system of Gerrymandering. For that reason, almost all high officials, including members of the Senate, came from a few wealthy and noble families. However, many notable exceptions did occur.