The Normans were an extraordinarily gifted and ambitious people. Beginning as heathen raiders, these Viking adventurers became, in barely a hundred years, a civilized if unscrupulous semi-independent Christian state in north-west France. In 1066 they invaded and occupied England, but before that they had made an equally ambitious foray into southern Italy and Sicily to set up their own dukedom and ultimately their own kingdom. This is the story that Norwich tells in this popular account.
The Normans who arrived in Italy were mostly younger sons with few prospects at home; in other words, they were adventurers. They quickly came into conflict with the Byzantine Greeks, who had long been the dominant power in the area. Their prowess in battle coupled with their skill in intrigue brought them gain after gain until the Byzantines were ultimately defeated and expelled.
Two personalities stand out above all others in the narrative. One is Robert Guiscard, a giant of a man both physically and in terms of character. He progressively unified southern Italy, becoming Duke of Apulia in the process. His wife, Sichelgaita, was as large and as warlike as himself. Later he was joined by his younger brother Roger, though relations between the two ambitious men were not always harmonious. It was Roger who went on to capture Sicily from the Saracens and to set up a Christian kingdom there. But he believed in making allies of the Saracens whenever possible, and the state he established was a remarkable blend of Christianity and Islam in which scholarship flourished.
Roger was succeeded by his son, also called Roger. Less of a military commander than his father, he preferred to use indirect means to gain his ends and to avoid battle whenever possible, but in this he was highly successful, becoming, first, Duke of Apulia in succession to his uncle Robert, and then King of Sicily.
This is the first volume of a two-part history of the Normans in Italy; the story concludes in "The Kingdom in the Sun". It is not intended to be a scholarly study but provides a dramatic and vivid account of one of the most extraordinay periods in mediaeval European history.