aroundthe world. In my paper I will discuss with you Marco Polo’s life, his travels, and his visitto China to see the great Khan. Marco Polo was born in c. 1254 in Venice.
He was a Venetian explorer andmerchant whose account of his travels in Asia was the primary source for the Europeanimage of the Far East until the late 19th century. Marco’s father, Niccol?, and his uncleMaffeo had traveled to China (1260-69) as merchants. When they left (1271) Venice toreturn to China, they were accompanied by 17-year-old Marco and two priests. Early LifeDespite his enduring fame, very little was known about the personal life of MarcoPolo. It is known that he was born into a leading Venetian family of merchants.
He alsolived during a propitious time in world history, when the height of Venice’s influence as acity-state coincided with the greatest extent of Mongol conquest of Asia(Li Man Kin 9). Ruled by Kublai Khan, the Mongol Empire stretched all the way from China to Russia andthe Levant. The Mongol hordes also threatened other parts of Europe, particularly Polandand Hungary, inspiring fear everywhere by their bloodthirsty advances. Yet the ruthlessmethods brought a measure of stability to the lands they controlled, opening up traderoutes such as the famous Silk Road.
Eventually ,the Mongols discovered that it wasmore profitable to collect tribute from people than to kill them outright, and this policytoo stimulated trade (Hull 23). Into this favorable atmosphere a number of European traders ventured, includingthe family of Marco Polo. The Polos had long-established ties in the Levant and aroundthe 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(Rugoff 8). From Sudak,around 1260, another uncle, Maffeo, and Marco’s father, Niccol?, made a trading visitinto Mongol territory, the land of the Golden Horde(Russia), ruled by Berke Khan. Whilethey were there, a war broke out between Berke and the Cowan of Levant , blocking theirreturn home.
Thus Niccol? and Maffeo traveled deeper into mongol territory, movingsoutheast to Bukhara, which was ruled by a third Cowan. While waiting there, they metan emissary traveling farther eastward who invited them to accompany him to the court ofthe great Cowan, Kublai, in Cathay(modern China). In Cathay, Kublai Khan gave thePolos a friendly reception, appointed them his emissaries to the pope, and ensured theirsafe travel back to Europe(Steffof 10). They were to return to Cathay with one hundredlearned men who could instruct the Mongols in the Christian religion and the liberal arts.
In 1269, Niccol? and Maffeo Polo arrived back in Venice, where Niccol? foundout his wife had died while he was gone(Rugoff 5). Their son, Marco, who was onlyabout 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 ofVenice. After his mother’s death, Marco had probably begun to think of himself assomething of a orphan(Rugoff 6). Then his father and uncle suddenly reappeared, as iffrom the dead, after nine years of traveling in far-off, romantic lands. These experienceswere the formative influences on young Marco, and one can see their effects mirrored inhis 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 orimpress(Li Man Kin 10).
Life’s WorkIn 1268, Pope Clement IV died, and a two- or three-year delay while another popewas being elected gave young Marco time to mature and to absorb the tales of his fatherand uncle. Marco was seventeen years old when he, his father and uncle finally set out forthe court of Kublai Khan(Stefoff 13). They were accompanied not by one hundred wisemen but by two Dominican friars, and the two good friars turned back at the first sign ofadversity, another local war in the Levant. Aside from the pope’s messages, the onlyspiritual gift Europe was able to furnish the great Kublai Khan was oil from the lampburning at Jesus Christ’s supposed tomb in Jerusalem.
Yet, in a sense, young Marco, theonly new person in the Polos’ party, was himself a fitting representative of the spirit ofEuropean civilization on the eve of the Renaissance, and the lack of one hundred learnedEuropeans guaranteed that he would catch the eye of the Cowan, who was curious about“Latins” (Hull 29). On the way to the khan’s court, Marco had the opportunity to complete hiseducation. The journey took three and a half years by horseback through some of theworld’s most rugged terrain, including snowy mountain ranges, such as the Pamirs, andparching deserts, such as the Gobi. Marco and his party encountered such hazards as wildbeasts and brigands; they also met with beautiful women, in whom young Marco took aspecial interest.
The group traveled numerous countries and cultures, noting food, dress,and religion unique to each(Li Man Kin 17). In particular, under the khans’s protectionthe Polos were able to observe a large portion of the Islamic world at close range, as fewif any European Christians had. By the time they reached the khan’s court in Khanbalik,Marco had become a hardened traveler. He had also received a unique education and hadbeen 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(Great Lives fromHistory 16765). On these points Marco has been accused of gross exaggeration, and theactual status of the Polos at the court of the khan is much disputed. If at first it appearsunlikely that Kublai would make young Marco an emissary, upon examination this seemsquite reasonable. For political reasons, the khan was in the habit of appointing foreignersto administer conquered lands, particularly China, where the tenacity of the Chinesebureaucracy was legendary. The khan could also observe for himself that young Marcowas a good candidate. Finally, Marco reported back so successfully from his fistmission-informing the khan not only on business details but also on colorful customs andother interesting trivia-that his further appointment was confirmed.
The journeysspecifically mentioned in Marco’s book, involving travel across China and a sea voyage toIndia, suggests that the khan did indeed trust him with some of the most difficultmissions(Rugoff 25). The Polos stayed on for seventeen years, another indication of how valued theywere in the khan’s court. Marco, his father, and his uncle not only survived-itself anachievement amid the political hazards of the time-but also prospered(Great Lives fromHistory 1678). Apparently, the elder Polos carried on their trading while Marco wasperforming his missions; yet seventeen years is a long time to trade without returninghome to family and friends. According to Macro, because the khan held them in such highregard, he would not let them return home, but as the khan aged the Polos began to fearwhat would happen after his death(Hull 18). Finally an opportunity to leave presenteditself when trusted emissaries were needed to accompany a Mongol princess on a weddingvoyage by sea to Persia, where she was promised to the local khan.
The Polos sailed fromCathay with a fleet of fourteen ships and a wedding party of six hundred people, notcounting the sailors. Only a few members of the wedding entourage survived the journeyof almost two years, but luckily the survivors included the Polos and the princess. Fortunately, too, the Polos duly delivered the princess not to the old khan of Persia, whohad meanwhile died, but to his son (Li Man Kin 21). From Persia, the Polos made their way back to Venice. They were robbed as soonas they got into Christian territory, but they still managed to reach home in 1295, withplenty of rich goods.
According to Giovanni Battista Ramusio, one of the early editors ofMarco’s book, the Polos strode into Venice looking like rugged Mongols(Stefoff 17). Having thought them dead, their relatives at first did not recognize them, then wereastounded, and then were disgusted by their shabby appearance. Yet, according toRamusio, the scorn changed to delight when the returned travelers invited everyone to ahomecoming banquet, ripped apart their old clothes, and let all the hidden jewels clatter tothe table(Great Lives from History 1676). The rest of the world might have learned little about the Polos’ travels if fate hadnot intervened in Marco’s life. In his early forties, Marco was not yet ready to settledown.
Perhaps he was restless for further adventure, or perhaps he felt obliged to fulfillhis civic duties to his native city-state. In any event, he became involved in naval warfarebetween Venetians and their trading rivals, the Genoese, and was captured. In 1298, thegreat traveler across Asia, and emissary of the khan found himself rotting in a prison inGenoa-an experience that could have ended tragically but instead took a lucky turn. Inprison Marco met a man named Rustichello from Persia, who was a writer ofromances(Stefoff 21).
To pass the time, Marco dictated his observations about Asia toRustichello, who, in writing them down, probably employed the Italianized Old Frenchthat was the language of medieval romances. Their book was soon circulating, since Marco remained in prison only a year or so,very likely gaining his freedom when the Venetians and Genoese made peace in1299(Rugoff 32). After his prison experience, Marco was content to lead a quiet life inVenice with the rest of his family and bask in his almost instant literary fame. He marriedDonata Badoer, a member of the Venetian aristocracy. eventually grew up to marrynobles.
Thus Marco seems to have spent the last part of his life moving in Venetianaristocratic circles. After living what was then a long life, Marco died in 1324, onlyseventy years of age. In his will he left most of his modest wealth to his three daughters, alegacy that included goods which he had brought back from Asia. His will also set free aTartar slave, who had remained with him since his return from the court of the greatkhan(Li Man Kin 25). Works CitedGreat Lives from History.
Ancient and Medieval Series. Pasadena,California: Salem Press, 1988. 2: 1675-1680. Hull, Mary. The Travels of Marco Polo.
California: Lucent Books Inc. ,1995. Li Man Kin. Marco Polo in China.
Hong Kong: Kingsway InternationalPublications, 1981. Rugoff, Milton. Marco Polo’s Adventures In China. New York: AmericanHeritage Publishing Co. , 1964.
Stefoff, Rebecca. Marco Polo and the Medieval Explorers. Chelsea HousePublishers, 1992. Bibliography :Works CitedGreat Lives from History. Ancient and Medieval Series. Pasadena,California: Salem Press, 1988.
2: 1675-1680. Hull, Mary. The Travels of Marco Polo. California: Lucent Books Inc. ,1995.
Li Man Kin. Marco Polo in China. Hong Kong: Kingsway InternationalPublications, 1981. Rugoff, Milton. Marco Polo’s Adventures In China. New York: AmericanHeritage Publishing Co.
, 1964. Stefoff, Rebecca. Marco Polo and the Medieval Explorers. Chelsea HousePublishers, 1992.