1254 - 1324
Described the China of Kublai Khan to Europeby Rit Nosotro First Published:: 2003
Children often yell "Marco" and "Polo" in the pool during the summer, but who exactly is Marco Polo and what effect did he have on the people of his age? We know Marco Polo as a great traveler whose writings about the East continue to delight readers today. But how did he get to the East, and what exactly were his stories about?
In 1254 Marco was born into a merchant family, in busy trade center of Venice.
Little is known about his childhood, but we can assume that he had a typical
education for children of merchants at that time, learning how to read, write,
and do simple math. His mother raised him much on her own when his father, Niccoló
Polo, and his uncle, Maffeo Polo, departed on a commercial trip when he was
four years old. Their journeys led the two jewel traders to China where they
gained favor with the Mongol ruler of China, Kublai Khan.
William Barclay writes that the Polos made an excellent case for Christianity. Kublai Khan was so intrigued by the claims of Christ that he said, "You send me a hundred men skilled in your religion and I shall be baptized and all my subjects will study Christianity too. There will then be more Christians in the East than in the West." The two men eventually returned to Venice in 1269, carrying a request from the Kublai Khan to pope Gregory X for missionaries to instruct his people in Christianity and European habits.
Marco's mother had died two years earlier, and so when the Polo brothers set off for China again in 1271, 17-year-old Marco accompanied them, along with two Dominican missionaries appointed by the pope. Their journey over land was long and treacherous, and the missionaries ended up turning back. (Three years later Franciscans were sent who reached the court in 1303 and were able to establish two churches with over 6,000 converts by 1330. But the Khan had died in1294 and the the Mongols were expelled from China by the Ming dynasty in 1368.) The Polo's eventually reached China in 1275, where the khan warmly welcomed them.
The men remained in China for 17 years, during which time Marco carried out diplomatic missions throughout the empire. Marco claims that he held the position of governor over the large commercial city of Yangzhou. He also claimed to have visited hundreds of Christian churches. These would have been the result of Christianity that had arrived in 635 from Christian merchants along the Silk Road. Then in 1292, the khan granted the Polo's request to return to Europe, asking them to conduct a Mongol princess to Persia on their way. So the men set sail from the southern Chinese port of Quanzhou, and traveled around southern India and the Persian Gulf; seeing the princess safely to her destination before returning to Venice in 1295.
The 41-year-old Marco then began telling people of his trip and the incredible things he saw in China. He became known as il milione ("the man with a million stories") young people of Venice gathered at his home to hear of his journeys and the wonderful things he saw.
Marco later became involved in a naval conflict between Venice and Genoa, and he was taken captive in 1298 along with about 7000 of his compatriots. He passed the time of imprisonment by telling stories, which caught the attention of a romance writer from Pisa. His fellow prisoner, whose name was Rustichello, transcribed the stories from Marco's travels into the French dialect.
When Venice finally made peace with Genoa in 1299, Marco Polo was released and returned to Venice. Once again he seems to have settled down into the life of a trader. While living in Venice after the war with Genoa, he married Donata Badoer and had three daughters. Not much is known about his later life, but he is thought to have died in 1324 at the age of seventy.
As Rustichello's writings continued to grow in popularity, Marco's stories
were translated into other languages, including Italian and English. The book
was the only European source of geography and culture of the far East. It even
inspired explorers such as Columbus, who carried Polo's account with him on
his journey across the Atlantic.
Modern day scholars still debate over the authenticity of Polo's accounts, but that has not stopped them from continuing to be read as fact. Most people who have studied his stories believe that any discrepancies between the stories and our knowledge of ancient China is due to Rustichello's embellishments of the stories and changes made in the copying and translation of it. But even on his deathbed Marco said, "I didn't tell half of what I saw, because no one would have believed me." Leaving us wondering just what other accounts this great storyteller had up his sleeve.