Marco Polo Biography


(History of the World: The Middle Ages)

Article abstract: Through his Asian travels and his book recording them, Marco Polo encouraged a medieval period of intercultural communication, Western knowledge of other lands, and eventually the Western period of exploration and expansion.

Early Life

Despite his enduring fame, very little is known about the personal life of Marco Polo. It is known that he was born into a leading Venetian family of merchants. He also lived during a propitious time in world history, when the height of Venice’s influence as a city-state coincided with the greatest extent of Mongol conquest of Asia. Ruled by Kublai Khan, the Mongol Empire stretched all the way from China to Russia and the Levant. The Mongol hordes also threatened other parts of Europe, particularly Poland and Hungary, inspiring fear everywhere by their bloodthirsty advances. Yet their ruthless methods brought a measure of stability to the lands they controlled, opening up trade routes such as the famous Silk Road. Eventually, the Mongols discovered that it was more profitable to collect tribute from people than to kill them outright, and this policy too stimulated trade.

Into this favorable atmosphere a number of European traders ventured, including the family of Marco Polo. The Polos had long-established ties in the Levant and around the Black Sea; for example, they owned property in Constantinople, and Marco’s uncle, for whom he was named, had a home in Sudak in the Crimea. From Sudak, around 1260, another uncle, Maffeo, and Marco’s father, Niccolò, made a trading visit into Mongol territory, the land of the Golden Horde (Russia), ruled by Berke Khan. While they were there, a war broke out between Berke and the khan of the Levant, blocking their return home. Thus Niccolò and Maffeo traveled deeper into Mongol territory, moving southeastward to Bukhara, which was ruled by a third khan. While waiting there, they met an emissary traveling farther eastward who invited them to accompany him to the court of the great khan, Kublai, in Cathay (modern China). In Cathay, Kublai Khan gave the Polos a friendly reception, appointed them his emissaries to the pope, and ensured their safe travel back to Europe: They were to return to Cathay with one hundred learned men who could instruct the Mongols in the Christian religion and the liberal arts.

In 1269, Niccolò and Maffeo Polo finally arrived back in Venice, where Niccolò found that his wife had died during his absence. Their son, Marco, then about fifteen years old, had been only six or younger when his father left home; thus Marco was reared primarily by his mother and the extended Polo family—and the streets of Venice. After his mother’s death, Marco had probably begun to think of himself as something of a orphan. Then his father and uncle suddenly reappeared, as if from the dead, after nine years of travel in far-off, romantic lands. These experiences were the formative influences on young Marco, and one can see their effects mirrored in his character: a combination of sensitivity and toughness, independence and loyalty, motivated by an eagerness for adventure, a love of stories, and a desire to please or impress.

Life’s Work

In 1268, Pope Clement IV died, and a two- or three-year delay while another pope was being elected gave young Marco time to mature and to absorb the tales of his father and uncle. Marco was seventeen years old when he, his father, and his uncle finally set out for the court of Kublai Khan. They were accompanied not by one hundred wise men but by two Dominican friars, and the two good friars turned back at the first sign of adversity, another local war in the Levant. Aside from the pope’s messages, the only spiritual gift Europe was able to furnish the great Kublai Khan was oil from the lamp burning at Jesus Christ’s supposed tomb in Jerusalem. Yet, in a sense, young Marco, the only new person in the Polos’ party, was himself a fitting representative of the spirit of European civilization on the eve of the Renaissance, and the lack of one hundred learned Europeans guaranteed that he would catch the eye of the khan, who was curious about “Latins.”

On the way to the khan’s court, Marco had the opportunity to complete his education. The journey took three and a half years by horseback through some of the world’s most rugged terrain, including snowy mountain ranges, such as the Pamirs, and parching deserts, such as the Gobi. Marco and his party encountered such hazards as wild beasts and brigands; they also met with beautiful women, in whom young Marco took a special interest. The group traveled through numerous countries and cultures, noting the food, dress, and religions unique to each. In particular, under the khan’s protection the Polos were able to observe a large portion of the Islamic world at close range, as few if any European Christians had. (Unfortunately, Marco’s anti-Muslim prejudices, a European legacy of the Crusades, marred his observations.) By the time they reached the khan’s court in Khanbalik (modern Peking), Marco had become a hardened traveler. He had also received a unique education and had been initiated into manhood.

Kublai Khan greeted the Polos warmly and invited them to stay on in his court. Here, if Marco’s account is to be believed, the Polos became great favorites of the khan, and Kublai eventually made Marco one of his most trusted emissaries. On these points Marco has been accused of gross exaggeration, and the actual status of the Polos at the court of the khan is much disputed. If at first it appears unlikely that Kublai would make young Marco an emissary, upon examination this seems quite reasonable. For political reasons, the khan was in the habit of appointing foreigners to administer conquered lands, particularly China, where the tenacity of the Chinese bureaucracy was legendary (and eventually contributed to the breakup of the Mongol Empire). The khan could also observe for himself that young Marco was a good candidate: eager, sturdy, knowledgeable, well traveled, and apt (Marco quickly assimilated...

(The entire section is 2493 words.)

Marco Polo Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Much of Marco Polo’s early life is still in question, including the place and date of his birth. Marco Polo’s father was one of three Venetian brothers who had formed a business partnership as merchants. Nicolo Polo, Marco’s father, and Maffeo Polo are known to have been at the court of Kublai Khan in the 1260’s. The khan apparently became interested enough in religion to send the two men to request that the pope send Christian missionaries to his land. When the Polos arrived home in 1269, they found that Pope Clement IV had died the year before. They waited for the election of a new pope before setting off once again for China, taking with them young Marco Polo and letters explaining the cause for their delay. They were followed some months later by two Dominican monks, but these missionaries never reached their destination.

According to Marco Polo’s account, his father and uncle hoped to journey to China by sea, taking ship on the Persian Gulf. Finding that plan to be infeasible, they traveled overland to the court of Kublai Khan, passing on their way through lands explored by no other Europeans until the nineteenth century and arriving at their destination in 1275, when Marco Polo was about twenty or twenty-one years old. Kublai Khan, pleased to see the Venetians, made them welcome at his court. Young Marco studied the languages of Kublai Khan’s dominions and entered the service of that great ruler. Traveling for the khan took Marco Polo to much of Asia: into the Chinese provinces of Shanxi, Shaanxi, Sichuan, and Yunnan, and into the areas now known as Myanmar and Tibet. Marco Polo, finding that the khan took great interest in all phases of life, took many notes on his travels and reported in great detail and in person to the ruler, who seems to have esteemed the young Venetian. Apparently Marco Polo for a time served as the governor of the province of Yangzhou, while the two elder Polos served Kublai Khan in the capacity of military advisers.

So important and rich did the three Europeans become that they grew fearful of what jealous courtiers or a new ruler might do to them in the event of Kublai Khan’s death. Fearing the worst, they petitioned for permission to return to their homeland; their wish was not at first granted. However, an opportunity...

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Marco Polo Bibliography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

“Chinese Puzzle: Marco Polo.” The Economist 337, no. 7940 (November 11, 1995): 88-96. Reviews Frances Wood’s Did Marco Polo Go to China? (below), which disputes that Marco Polo was ever in China.

Hall, B. “Marco Polo’s World.” Travel-Holiday 175, no. 4 (May, 1992): 64-75. A light, personal account, which claims that Polo was more accurate in his reports than was Christopher Columbus.

Olschki, Leonardo. Marco Polo’s Asia. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1960. Describes Polo’s travels; includes illustrations and maps.

Olschki, Leonardo....

(The entire section is 117 words.)