The term democracy, which means “rule by the people,” was coined by the Greeks of ancient Athens to describe their city-state’s system of self-rule, which reached its golden age around 430 B.C. under the skilled orator and politician Pericles. It is probable that the Athenians were not the first group of people to adopt such a system (a few places in India have traditions of local democracy that claim earlier origins) but because the Greeks named it, they have a good claim at being the “first” democracy, even though large portions of Athenian society—most notably women and slaves—could not participate.
The title of oldest continuously functioning democracy is more hotly contested. Iceland, the Faroe Islands and the Isle of Man all have local parliaments founded in the ninth and 10th centuries, when Vikings pillaged, plundered and set up legislative bodies on the sea-islands of far northern Europe. Iceland’s national parliament, the Althing, dates back to A.D. 930, but it spent centuries under Norwegian and Danish rule. Man and the Faroes, meanwhile, remain dependencies of the United Kingdom and Denmark, respectively.
The United States is among the oldest modern democracies, but it is only the oldest if the criteria are refined to disqualify claimants ranging from Switzerland to San Marino. Some historians suggest that the Native American Six Nations confederacy (Iroquois), which traces its consensus-based government tradition across eight centuries, is the oldest living participatory democracy. Others point out that meaningful democracy only arrived at a national level in 1906, when Finland became the first country to abolish race and gender requirements for both voting and for serving in government.