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.)