DĀTA, Old Iranian term for “law” (originally the neuter verbal adjective dāta-m from the root dā- “to put, place,” thus “(the law) set/laid down”; cf. Ger. Gesetz and Eng. law respectively), attested both in Avestan texts (Old and Younger Av. dāta-) and in Achaemenid royal inscriptions (Old Pers. dāta-; Kent, Old Persian, p. 189). The Old Persian term was incorporated into the languages of several neighboring peoples during the Achaemenid and subsequent periods (e.g., El. da-ad-da-um, da-at-tam6, da-tam5, da-ad-da-(-ma) [cf. Hinz and Koch, pp. 246-47, 256, 298], Late Babylonian da-a-ta/ti/tu, Hebrew dt-, biblical Aram. dʾt, dāt, inscriptional Aram. [Xanthos] dt-h, Syr. dt-ʾ, Arm. dat (cf. Mid. Pers., NPers. dād, etc.).

In the Achaemenid royal inscriptions Old Persian dāta- is used in a dual sense. In texts of Darius I (522-486 B.C.E.) all the references are to the king’s law, by which order was established and guaranteed in his empire (DB I.23: “these countries obeyed my law”; DNa 21-22=DSe 20-21=XPh 18-19: “my law—that held them (firm)”; DSe 37-39 “my law—of that they are afraid”). In two instances in Xerxes’ so-called “daiva inscription,” however, the law of Ahura Mazdā is mentioned (“obey that law which Auramazdā has established”; the man who obeys “both becomes happy while living and blessed when dead”; XPh 49-56; Kent, Old Persian, pp. 151-52). Divine law thus apparently applied not only to order on earth but also to welfare in the life to come.

Both these meanings, “king’s law” and “divine law,” recurred elsewhere. In the royal decree of Artaxerxes I (465-25 B.C.E.) quoted in chapter 7 of the Book of Ezra “the law (dāṯā) of your God (i.e., Yahweh)” and “the law of the king” (dāṯā dī malkā) are mentioned side by side. Other evidence in the Old Testament confirms this dual meaning; it suffices to mention only the famous immutable “law of the Medes and the Persians” (Daniel 6:9, 6:13, 6:16; Esther 1:19).

It is not surprising that the expression “the king’s law/decree (dātu ša šarri)” is also attested from Babylonia, but only from the reign of Darius I and later. The phrase occurs in several texts but in obviously different senses (Assyrian Dictionary, pp. 122-23). On one hand, the delivery of barley and other produce and the payment due are the subject, whereas in other instances (e.g., a deed recording a slave sale) there are references to trials before a judge whose behavior and decision were to be guided by a law. It is thus evident that this law had been newly imposed in Babylonia by the Achaemenids, most probably by Darius.

It was owing to Darius’ legal reforms or, stated more prudently, to his introduction of a special Persian form of law that so many peoples of the empire borrowed the Old Persian term dāta-, in semantic contexts obviously extending beyond the native Jewish, Mesopotamian, and other conceptions of “law.” Furthermore, there is no doubt that these new developments in the legal and juridical systems were based on royal decrees, which had the force of law. T. Cuyler Young, Jr., correctly noted (p. 95) the passage from DB 1.23-24 in which Darius seems to have equated his law with his command: “By the favor of Auramazdā these countries obeyed my law; as has been said to them by me, thus they used to act.” In one document from his twelfth year there is mention of a high official ša muḫḫi dātu “in charge of the law,” and the title dātabara is also attested.

The only independent (untranslated) attestation of Old Persian dātam in the Elamite texts is in a Persepolis tablet (PF 1980.31; Hallock, pp. 583-84) in which the term “a former law” occurs, probably referring to a kind of decreed tariff and surely not to a law.

The use of the Avestan term dāta- (AirWb., col. 726) corresponds to some extent to the Achaemenid dual usage. On one hand, there are the divine “laws of Ahura Mazdā” (e.g., Y. 46.15, 21.1); the religious “law of Zoroaster” (dāta- zaraθuštri-), which is more often than not combined with the “law code abjuring the daēuuas” (dāta- vīdaēuua-, i.e., the Vidēvdād); and apparently a deified “law” (dāta-; Yt. 10.139). On the other hand, profane and trivial occurrences of dāta- are not infrequent, including that in Yašt 10.84, where there is reference to the pauper who “is deprived of his rights (dātāiš).”




The Assyrian Dictionary III. D, Chicago, 1959.

P. Frei and K. Koch, Reichsidee und Reichsorganisation im Perserreich, Freiberg and Göttingen, 1984, pp. 63-64.

R. T. Hallock, Persepolis Fortification Tablets, Chicago, 1969.

W. Hinz and H. Koch, Elamisches Wörterbuch, 2 vols., Berlin, 1987.

A. T. Olmstead, History of the Persian Empire, Chicago, 1948, pp. 119-20, 128 ff., 304-05.

T. C. Young, Jr., “The Consolidation of the Empire and Its Limits of Growth under Darius and Xerxes,” CAH2 IV, pp. 53-111, esp. pp. 94-95.

(Rüdiger Schmitt)

Originally Published: December 15, 1994

Last Updated: November 18, 2011

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