Scholars have produced ample studies on the imperial and aristocratic life of Byzantium, focusing on buildings, endowments, clothes, and other aspects. While these studies provide essential insights into the Byzantine world, the empire did not consist solely of emperors, their entourages, or wealthy families, the dynatoi. Another view is offered through the lens of the non-elite society, which existed somewhat independently and shaped the Byzantine community economically, culturally, and socially.
Throughout history, all societies have been formed of different types of family units. Much remains to be explored about the family structure and household in Byzantium, particularly as it relates to children and their material culture. Philip Ariès's pioneering study L'enfant et la vie familiale sous l'ancien régime (1960), translated into English as Centuries of Childhood (1962), suggested to some that the notion of childhood did not exist prior to the modern period. Byzantine scholars were among those who responded to his work by providing details about the lives of children in the Byzantine empire.
The typical Byzantine family (oikogeneia) consisted of parents and two to three children (though large families oftentimes included grandparents, relatives, slaves and servants, and even close friends). Archaeological remains, including clothing, footwear, amulets, jewelry, toys, and dolls, indicate that parents devoted some of their expendable wealth lavishing gifts on their children.
This child's tunic is one of a large number of Egyptian textiles yielded by burial grounds and mounds (akwam) in Egypt. It would have been worn by a seven- or eight-year-old child. As with other tunics from Byzantine Egypt, this one has a separate hood attached. Made of wool, the tunic was perhaps not as expensive as those made from silk, for example. However, the charming colors and ornamentation, perhaps of a Dionysiac theme, would have given the tunic added monetary value. Parents of different social strata purchased what they could afford, through which they showed affection for their children and at the same time projected social status.
Child's Tunic with Hood, A.D. 430–620, Egypt. Tapestry weave in purple-colored, red-brown, and undyed wool on plain-weave ground of green wool; fringes in green and red-brown along the perimeter of the hood and lower edges. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of George D. Pratt, 1927 (27.239)
Toys and dolls represent another form of material culture that tells us about Byzantine children as well as parents. This bone figurine attributed to Egypt, for example, was likely a toy that children would have played with in everyday life. Another possible function attributed to the figurine is that of an amulet for protection of children or for women's fertility. Material remains associated with childhood can thus also yield details about adults.
Figure, 7th–9th century. Egypt. Bone; carved and incised. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Lily S. Place, 1921 (21.6.107)
The progeny of Byzantine families constituted a pillar upon which a thousand-year empire was founded and sustained. The tunic and the bone toy are the kinds of materials through which scholars are shedding new light on this integral component of Byzantine society.