Lottery is a contest in which people pay to try to win a prize. Often the prize is money, but can also be other goods or services. The chances of winning the lottery are usually quite low, but people still dream of being the next big jackpot winner.

A lottery is a form of gambling where prizes are awarded according to a random procedure. It is not to be confused with a raffle, where prizes are awarded in return for some consideration (e.g., money). Modern lotteries are used for military conscription, commercial promotions in which property is given away by a random procedure, and the selection of jury members from lists of registered voters. Under the strict definition of a gambling type of lottery, however, payment must be made for a chance to receive the prize.

The earliest known lotteries were arranged for the distribution of property in ancient Rome, where they were popular entertainments during Saturnalian feasts. These were not public lotteries in the sense of selling tickets, but rather a means of drawing lots for various items including fancy dinnerware.

The first European public lotteries that offered money prizes appeared in the 15th century, when towns in Burgundy and Flanders held them to raise funds for town fortifications and the poor. They became popular in the 17th century, when Francis I of France began a nationwide lottery. Today’s governmental lotteries are designed to promote public interest and serve as a painless alternative to traditional taxation.