Last Updated September 5, 2023.
Marco Polo, a thirteenth-century merchant, was one of history's great adventurers. He told his travel stories to Rustichello da Pisa, who wrote of Book of the Marvels of the World, also known as Description of the World—or The Travels of Marco Polo.
Since these stories span a long time period and settings across the world, they feature a range of characters. Here, let's talk about a few of the most significant characters, and a few of the significant groups of people that stand in for what might be more specific characters (if this were a different kind of book.)
Marco Polo is, of course, the star of the show. In his day, he was considered to be the the most widely traveled person in the world. (Keep in mind that these stories are told to the author by Marco Polo himself, so as readers, we should remember that these stories are almost autobiographical—or at least, we should take Polo's estimations of himself with a grain of salt.) That said, Polo, as told in these accounts, was a bright person with incredibly practical skills that allowed him to survive and thrive in a variety of situations. Even in forbidding environments, like the desert, and even when he's not met with any kind of welcome, Polo always finds food to eat and a place to sleep. He's a merchant and a trader, and he's entrepreneurial, always looking for connections and trying to understand the local culture so that he may better navigate through it.
Niccolo & Maffeo Polo
Marco Polo's father and uncle, respectively. These two brothers, Venetian merchants, take young Marco with them on trading trips to Asia, most notably on a long trip to the land of Kublai Khan. Polo hardly knew his father at the beginning of that trip—his dad had been away on long trading trips for much of his early childhood.
The Emperor of China. He's a generous ruler, with many wives and sons. Marco Polo becomes his friend and confidante, though he begins as one of the emperor's attendants. Polo learns languages and proves his intelligence, eventually making his way up the ranks in the emperor's court.
Kublai Khan's nephew and companion in battle.
Groups of people Marco Polo encounters in his travels:
People of kingdom of Kon-cha
They're cannibalistic — they eat human flesh — a fact that is shocking to Marco Polo.
People of Kardandan
Marco Polo observes a paternalistic society here that interests him: fathers care for babies more than mothers do.
People of Kin-sai
Marco Polo is astounded by the city's beauty and by the community-focused ideals of the people who live in it.
People of Nocueran
They live among trees and don't wear clothes.