It is not an SI unit, as the SI unit of angular measure is the radian, but it is mentioned in the SI brochure as an accepted unit. Because a full rotation equals 2π radians, one degree is equivalent to π/ radians.
The original motivation for choosing the degree as a unit of rotations and angles is unknown. One theory states that it is related to the fact that 360 is approximately the number of days in a year. Ancient astronomers noticed that the sun, which follows through the ecliptic path over the course of the year, seems to advance in its path by approximately one degree each day. Some ancient calendars, such as the Persian calendar, used 360 days for a year. The use of a calendar with 360 days may be related to the use of sexagesimal numbers.
Another theory is that the Babylonians subdivided the circle using the angle of an equilateral triangle as the basic unit and further subdivided the latter into 60 parts following their sexagesimal numeric system. The earliest trigonometry, used by the Babylonian astronomers and their Greek successors, was based on chords of a circle. A chord of length equal to the radius made a natural base quantity. One sixtieth of this, using their standard sexagesimal divisions, was a degree.
Aristarchus of Samos and Hipparchus seem to have been among the first Greek scientists to exploit Babylonian astronomical knowledge and techniques systematically. Timocharis, Aristarchus, Aristillus, Archimedes, and Hipparchus were the first Greeks known to divide the circle in 360 degrees of 60 arc minutes. Eratosthenes used a simpler sexagesimal system dividing a circle into 60 parts.