Biography: Marco Polo (Italy-Venice, 1254-1324)

Figure 1.--European readers were entranced by Marco Polos accounts of his travels in Cathay. Here is a fanciful depiction of the Polos setting out on their journey. I am not sure who painted this or when, but would assume some time about 1310.

The Silk Road played a major role in Medieval history. Marco Polo was the most famous Westerner to travel the Silk Road, reach China, and return. He was a boy when he began his remarable journey. Chinese goods were known to the West, but China itself was unknown and Polo's account was seemibly so fantastic that he was at first not believed. It is well he began as a boy. His journeys through Asia extended for 24 years. He traveled further and farther east than any of his predecessors. He not only traveled beyond Mongolia to the unknown realm of China, but he became a confidant of Emperor Kublai Khan (1214-1294). After traveling throughout China he retuned to Venice where he wrote the greatest travelogue ever compiled. Marco Polo's life appears to be so incredible that it belies belief. Some historians are skeptical about Marco's accounts, especially because of certain aspects of Chinese life that are not mentioned as well as obviously erronious observations. Marco's accounts are, however, so detailed and many much of it verifiably accurate that his account overall seems generally accurate. His book not only makes for fascinating reading, but was to have a profound impact on Europe.

The Silk Road

The history of the famed Silk Road is one of many instances in which clothing and fabrics have played a major role in human history. The story of the silk road is one of military adventures and conquest, adventuresome explorers, religious pilgrims, and great philosophers. While it is silk which is often, naturally enough, most strongly associated with the silk road, the flow of ideas and religion as an almost unintended aspect of the flow of trade may have been one of the most significant impacts. Of course most of the people who traversed the silk road were not great thinkers, but common tradesmen who transported their merchandise at great risk for the substantial profits that could be made. They moved cammal caravans over some of the most hostile terraine on the planet. The ilk road tranversed deserts, mountains and the seemingly endless Central Asian steppe. Some of the great figures of history are associated with the Silk Road, including Alexander the Great, Marco Polo, Genghis Khan, and Tamerlane. Merchandice may have moved over the Silk Road as early as the 5th century BC. The Silk Road is believed to have become an established trade route by the 1st century BC and continued to be important until the 16th century when more reliable sea routes were established as a result of the European voyages of discovery.


Marco's father was Nicolo Polo. The Polo Brothers Maffeo and Nicolo were Venetian merchants. The Polo family were respected Venitain traders originating along the coast of Dalmatia. Niccolo and Maffeo had established a lucrative trading outpost on Curzola, an island along the Dalmatian coast.


Marco Polo was born on Curzola or in Venice (1254). Marco Polo grew up in Venice. Venice was a poweful trading state, the most important in the Mediterranean. As such Marco growing would have been exposed to intteresting sites and sounds as vessels from all over the Mediterrean brought their cargoes to Venice.


Venice and Normon allies sacked Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade (1204). They set up the Lastin Empire to replace the faltering Byzantine Empire. This allowed Venice to establisg colonies and trade agreements which left Venice in control of commerce througout the Eastern Mediterranean, Aegean, and Adriatic seas. This gave Venice access to the Silk Road trade to Western Europe. The Pax Mongolica from the mid-13th to the mid-14th centuries created stable conditions in central Asia which allowed Venetians (the Polos) to travel to China, and permitted substantially increased traffic just at the time when the coming of the Renaissance was quickening economic activity in the west.

Childhood Clothing


It is thought that Marco had the appropriate education for a boy from a prosperous family of the day. This could not have occurred in Venice as Marco spent many of his early years taveling to China and back. Appreantly his father and uncle saw to his education. He learned the classical authors. He understood the Bible and the basic theology of the Catholic Church. He like his father and uncle was a capable linguist. He laerned learned French, at least sufficent for commderce. He appears to have had an inquiistive mind perfectvfor compiling a travelogue about natural resources, people, and flora and fauna.

The Black Sea (1260)

The Black Sea ports were important trading posts for the Venetians. The Polo brothers did not set out to travel to China. Marco was being taught the family trade. The Polo brothers took Marco with them to Sudak, a Crimean port (1260). Marco was about 6 years old. Sudak was an important trading center. The brothers went on to Surai on the Volga river. Here the fur trade met the Silk Road. It was on the Volga which means goods such as fur and amber from the interior of Russia were available. It was also a western terminus for the Silk Road meaning that goods from China were available. The brothers traded in Surai for about a year. As they were preparing to return home to Venice a civil war broke out between the Mongols (1261). The forces of Barka and his cousin Hulagu struggled for control. This meant that it would not be safe to return over the same route that they came. The Polos decided to make a wide detour to east in an effort to avoid the fighting. They found themselves as a resulted stranded for 3 years in Bukhara/Bokhara which is located in modern Uzbekistan.

The Mongols

The Silk Road played a major role in the Mongols rise to power and the maintenance of their empire. The Mongols defeated imperial Chines armies with sophisticated tactics. They extorted great wealth from Chinese emperors by pillage and tribute demands. There were also profits from border trade and the sale of luxury goods through the Silk Road. There was a long history of Central Asian nomads threatening China. This was the reason that the Great wall was built. Nomads during the Han dynasty (209BC-155AD) and the Tang dynasty (582-840AD) pilaged major Chinese cities and carried out border incursions. The luxury goods that flowed from China could be sold on the Silk Road for imense profits. This is part of the reason that the Mongols were able to conquer a huge empire. The Pan-Mongolica imposed in the 13th and 14th century created security conditions on the Silk Road thar increased the volume of trade.

First Journey (1264-66)

Hulagu Khan learned of the presence of stranded Westerners in Bukhara. He dispatched an emmisarry with the seemingly fantastic invitation to travel to China (1264). The emmissary persuaded the Polo brothers that Great Khan was interested in meeting Westerbers or Latins as he called them. The Polos exasperated a being stranded in Bukhara for 3 years, decided to accept the Mongol invitation. They journied eastward to Samarkand, Kashgar, and then vast Gobi desert. They tansversted the northern route of the Silk Road, reaching Turfan and Hami. They then went south-east to Dunhuang. They then traveled along the Hexi Corridor, reaching the Great Khan's new capital Cambaluc (modern Bejing) (1266).

Kublai Khan (1266)

The Great Khan was Mangu's brother Kublai. He proved to be fascinated by the Westerners. His new capital was not a primitive Mongol encampment, but already showing the force of China in changing conquerors, a modern city more advanced than in city in Europe. Kublai and the Mongils had completed the conquest of China (1264) and founded the Yuan dynasty (1264-1368). Kublai asked them endless questions about Europe. He seemed especially interested in the Pope and the Roman Catholic church. Niccolo and Matteo, proficent linguists. They had learned Turkic dialects and were able to commuicate with Kublai. The Polps were well cared for in China. After about 1 year Kublai sent the Polos home (1267). He gave them a letter in Turki for Pope Clement IV. He asked the Pope to send him 100 learned men that could teach Christianity and Western science. He also asked the Pope to send oil from the lamp at the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.

Return to Venice (1267-69)

Kublai to assist the Polo Brothers on their return trip gave them them a golden tablet (paiza/gerege). It was 1 foot long and 3 inches wide. The words "By the strength of the eternal Heaven, holy be the Khan's name. Let him that pays him not reverence be killed" were inscribed on the tablet. It was a kind of VIP passport through the lands conquered by the Mongols. The journey home took 3 years. They finally reached Venice (April 1269). Marco was by now a teenager about 15 years old. He found that his mother had died in their absence.

Second Journey (1271-75)

The Polos remained in Venice 2 years. Then the three began a second journey to China (1271). The new Pope Tedaldo (Gregory X) sent letters and valuable gifts for the Great Khan. Marco Polo was now 17 years old. We have a much more detailed account of the second journey than the first journet because Marco is no longer a child he sees and notices more and remenmbers better. Two friars were to accompany them, but they soon retuned. The Polos continued east along the southern Silk Road, passing through Armenia, Persia, and Afghanistan, over the Pamirs, and finally back to China. They followed a different route. They felt a sea voyage might be safer and easier. This is a reasonable idea for Venetians a as their city was a major maritime power. They sailed to the eastern Mediterrean port of Acre and then journied overland to Hormuz on the Persian Gulf. Their plan was to take a less arduous sea route to China, They were apaled, however, when they found state of the ships in Hormuz and decided another overland crossing was the wisest choice. They traveled to to Kerman, passing through Herat, Balkh, before arriving in arrived Badakhshan. Here they stayed about 1 year. Marco had vecome ill and convalesced in Badakhshan. Next they again traveled over the Pamirs, which Marco described as "the highest place in the world". Marco noted with great interest the customs of the various peoples in the lands which they passed. He also was very interested in local resources sych as jade. Marco especially remembers crossing the Gobi Desert. While an ordeal, Marco remembers the route bein well established and sage during the reign of the Mongols. The first major city after passing through the Gobi was Suchow (Dunhuang). Here Marco stayed a year. One of the marvels Marco noted there was asbestos which could be made into cloth. He later wrote that the cloth was cleaned by putting into a fire. When Kublai learned of their presence he dispatched a royal escort. The Polos reached Kublai's first capital at Shang-tu which had been coverted into a summer residence (May 1275) and then went on to the winter palace at modern Beijing. The journey had taken 3 1/2 years and they had traveled 5,600 miles.

Kublai Kahn (1275)

The Polos upon being brought before the Great Khan knelt and made obeisance. Kublai was delighted to see them again. He asked questions about their health and travels. They presented him the letters which the Pope had sent along with the holy oil Kublai had requested. Kublai noticed Marco and Nicolo presented him as his son. They were accomodated at court with high honors. Marco's account of Kublai is fascinating. Enjoying all the luxuries of China, Kublai apparently did not forget his early life on the steppe. He apparently steppe grass sown in his courtyard around the Imperial Palace to remind him of the Mongol homeland of his youth. Marco had many conversations with Kublai and got to know the Great Kahn and his court intimately. Marco like his father and uncle was a gifted linguist. He thus could communicate easily with Kublai who appointed him to a number of important Imperial post. He not only served at the Khan's court, but was dispatched on several special missions both in China and Burma and India. Incredibly many places visited by Marco were not again visited by Europeans for centuries.

Life in China (1275-1293)

A number of Westerners and Arabs traveled the Silk Road or portions of it. The Polos are believed to be the first Westerners to cross the Gobi and reach China. Certainly Marco is the first to publish a book of his travels. His book provides perhaps the best account of the Imperial Court and China in the 13th countury under Mongol rule. The Polos lived in China for 17 years providing them the oportunity to know the country intimately.

Cambaluc (Bejing)

Marco described Kublai's capital and life in the city in great detail. He described public ceremonies and hunting. He even noted an early system of public assistance. The city was called Cambaluc or Khanbalig, meaning 'city of the Khan.' Kublai built this new capital because astrologers had predicted rebellion in the old capital. Marco described the new capital as the most magnificent city in the world. He was especially impressed with the Summer palace. The walls were covered with gold and silver. The palace had a hall where 6,000 people could dine for important ceremonies. There was a spendid marble palace. The walls were gilt and painted. Marco especially remembered the paintings of men and wild beasts. Marco's description was to inspire the noted English poet Coleridge to pen his poem about Kublai Khan's "stately pleasure-dome" in Xanadu. There was also a moveable palace which, reflecting the Mongols nomadic origins, was ingeniously designed from bamboo and silk cords. It could be disambelled and transported when the Emperor moved his court. Kublai maintained a stable of 10,000 "speckless" white horses. Their milk was reserved for the Imperial family and a tribe revered by Kublai's grandfather Genghis for a great victory.

Chinese technology and public administration

Chinese technology in many areas was in the 13th century still well ahead of Western technology. Many elemements of Chinese technology had been transported west over the Silk Road and incorporated in varying degrees into Western life. Other elements had not yet reached Europe and Marco was fascinated by what he saw. Abestos was encountered on the journey to China. Three aspects of Chinese life were especually fascinating to Marco: paper currency, coal and the Imperial mail. There were also many other aspects that fascinated him.
Paper money: The Polos were established merchants, but were astonded by the idea of substituting gold and silver with paper. The parctice was unknown in the Europe of the 13th century. Here the Chinese had made important technical advancements in the manufacture of paper which was also being used for printing books.
Coal: Marco described "stones that burn like logs" meaning coal. Now this observation reflects Marco's limited knowledge, because coal was known and used in some areas of Europe. More interestigly here he goes in to describe that it is used to heat the water in bath houses and that the Chinese take baths three times or more a week, even in winter. This at a time when Europeans rarely bathed at all.
Communications: Marco's was duly impressed with the Imperial mail. In fact there were differebt categories of mail which sound rather like the modern post office loosely trams lated as: 'second class', 'first class', and 'On His Imperial Majesty's Service: Top Priority'. The top category was rather like the famed Pony Express of the American West, only better organized. Marco claimed that the Imperial couriers could carry dispatches 250-300 miles in a single day.

Economic power

Marco traveled during his stay in Chinma traveled widely throughout the country. He was impressed with the enomity of the country and its population and marveled at its wealth and economic strength. The Chinese Empire under the Yuan dynasty (Mongol Empire) had an economy that was vastltly greater than that of Europe. He estimated that iron manufacture totaled about 125,000 tons annually. Europe did not achieve that level of production until the Industrial Revolution of the 18th century. China had a vast canal-based transportation system which linked agricultural and mining areas to the great cities and connected thge cities to each other. The communication system that he marveled at and the paper currency helped to create what we see today as the foundation of a modern economy. Chinese citizens at the day under Mongol rule were more prosperous and had a higher standard of living than the citizens of any European city.

Imperial posts

The Polos were given high posts in the Imperial service. Apparently Kublai preceivedin these Westerners men that he coukd trust. Kublai appointed Marco as an official of the Privy Council (1277). Marco served for 3 years as a tax inspector in Yanzhou, an important city on the Grand Canal, northeast of Nanking. He also traveled widely, visiting Karakorum and areas of Siberia. Nicolo and Maffeo aided in an attack on Siang Yang Fou. They designed and constructed siege engines. Marco fell in love with Hangzhou, a city near Yangzhou. It was once the capital of the Song dynasty. What Marco appreciated were the beautiful lakes and numerous canals--remonding him of Venice.

Return Journey (1293-95)

The Polos became very wealthy in China in the service of Kublai accumulating both gold and jewels. As he grew older they became concerned about their position. They were attached to his service and thre was no guarantee that the next Khan would look as favorably on them. Kublai was reluctant to allow them to leave. The assignment of escorted Mongol princess Kokachin to marry the Persian prince Arghun provided the opportunity. The Polos traveled west by sea. They traveled through the South China Sea to Sumatra and then into the Indian Ocean, finally reaching Hormuz in the Persian Gulf. Marco did not go into detail concerning the sea journey, in contrast to some of his accounts of land journeys. It took 2 years and large numbers of people died on the voyage. We are not sure just what transpired, bit there are a wide range of theories (diseases like scurvy or cholera, storms, or attacks by hostile natives and pirates). When they reached Hormuz they found that Prince Arghun had died 2 years earlier. The Princess thus married his son, prince Ghazan. They also learned that Kublai Khan had died (1294). The Polos still had his golden tablet of authority which allowed them to travel safely and receive aid and assistance from local authorities, not only supplies and horses, but armed escorts. They traveled north to Trebizond on the Black Sea. And then by sea via Constantinople to Venice. They arrived home and at first no one recognized them (1295). Their family believed that they had perished long ago.


Genoa was Venice's major Italian rival for the sea trade of the easter Mediterrean. Genoa in about the 10th century AD became a free commune governed by consuls. It became an important maritime power in the Mediterranean. Genoa joined with Pisa in the 11th century to drive the Arabs out of Corsica and Sardinia. Both sides fought to contro Sardinia and fought protracted wars. Genoan naval forces triumphed in the battle of Meloria (1284). The Crusades opening trade to the east made fortunes for Genoan mercgants. The Genoan Republic acquired possessions and trading privileges over an emense ara of the Mediterranean world, extending from Spain to the Crimea. Genoa's expansion and its military defense were largely financed by a group of merchants who in 1408 organized a powerful bank, the Banco San Giorgio. Genoese policy in the eastern Mediterranean, however, clashed with Venice, another naval power. The two Republics engaged in extended wars, finally ending with the Peace of Turin (1381), slightly to Venice's advantage.

War Captive (1298)

Marco after his return from China continued to ply the family trade as a merchant. At the time Venice was locked into a commercial war which degenerated into a full scale naval conflict with Genoa. Marco while commanding a galley in a battle against the Genonese fleet was captured (1298). He languished for a year in a Genoese prison. One of the other Venitian prisoners was a writer--Rustichello of Pisa. He specialized in romances. Marveling at Marco's accounts, Rustichello convinced him to dictate an account to him. Later on his death bed Marco is said to have exclaimed "I have only told the half of what I saw!" Genoa and Venice concluded a peace treaty (1299). Marco was released and allowed to return to Venice.


Marco lived 35 years after his release from Genoese captivity. He married Donata Badoer. The couple had three daughters.


One wonders at what became of the fortune the Polos claimed to havde amassed in China. Marco's left his wife and three daughters a considerable amount of money, however, it was not fabulos fortune Marco boasted of in his book. He also mentioned in his will his servant, Peter, who was given him by the Mongols, directing that he be set free. His will detailed his possessions. Marco still owned cloths, a variety of valuable pieces, coverings, brocades of silk and gold, just like those mentioned in his book. Among various precious objects was the "golden tablet of command" that Kublai had presented him when he departed.

The Book

Marco's account of his fantastic exploits became one of the most popular books in Medieval Europe. Printing with moveable type had not yet been invented so the number of actual books was limited, but his accounts spread all over Europe in many translations.

There are difficulties associated with the book. Many did not believe his account, rejecting it as just to preposterous. Some called the book Il Milione (The Million Lies). Marco was called Marco Milione because so few believed him. Europeans widely dismissed the Marco's book as fable and fiction. Some material is obvious fiction such as gigantic birds which dropped elephants and then devoured their broken carcasses. There are also many notable lapses in his description of China. Marco who was a capable linguist never learned Chinese despite climing to live there for 17 years. He never mentions the Great Wall. Also despite detailed descriptions of Chinse life, there are notable omissions: women's foot-binding, calligraphy, or tea. Especially troubling is the fact that the Polo's were not entered in Yuan Shih's Annals of the Empire when much less less important foreigners were included. Thus historians still debate if Marco Polo actually went to China.

While there were many skeptics, the book was soon recognized as the best account of Asia available. Marco's book is the most influential travelogue ever written. It is also notable for the dispasionate appraoch to describing different and often exotic people and customs. It is the most accurate contemprary account of the Silk Road written in a European language. Not only is it the first and reasobably accurate description of China available to Europeans, but Marco also describes lands unknown to Europeans (Burma/Myramar, Ceylon/Sri Lanka, Japan, Java, Siam/Thiland, and Tibet). Many of the reports discounted by Medieval readers have since been verified by historians and geographers. Modern geographers report that Marco's approach of measuring distances by days' journey seems on the whole reasonably accurate. The book has also proven useful to modern Chinese historians as Marco described the siege of Hsiangyang, the massacre of Ch'angchou, and the aborted invasions of Japan. Contemprary Chinese texts are often difficult to understand.


The impact of Marco's book on Europe was incalcuable. Editions of his work were translated and distributed throughout Europe. Perhaps because of the doubts as to the reliability of his accounts, contemprary geographers made little use of Marco's book. One of the first geographic works to utilize Marco's accounts was the Catalan World Map (1375). Later Prince Henry the Navigator and Columbus, to name just a few early explorers, are said to have read his books with great interest. Thus by kindling interest in the East and by providing a wealth of information about China, Marco played an important role in the great European Voyages of Discovery.


Polo, Marco. The Book of Marco Polo.


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Created: April 20, 2004
Last updated: 10:05 PM 10/4/2017