Marco Polo is one of the most well-known heroic
travelers and traders around the world. In my paper I will
discuss with you Marco Polo’s life, his travels, and his
visit to China to see the great Khan. Marco Polo was born in
c.1254 in Venice. He was a Venetian explorer and merchant
whose account of his travels in Asia was the primary source
for the European image of the Far East until the late 19th

Marco’s father, Niccol, and his uncle Maffeo had
traveled to China (1260-69) as merchants. When they left
(1271) Venice to return to China, they were accompanied by
17-year-old Marco and two priests. Early Life Despite his
enduring fame, very little was 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(Li Man Kin
9). 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 the 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(Hull 23).

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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
onstantinople, 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 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 Cowan of
Levant, blocking their return home. Thus Niccol and Maffeo
traveled deeper into mongol territory, moving southeast to
Bukhara, which was ruled by a third Cowan. While waiting
there, they met an emissary traveling farther eastward who
invited them to accompany him to the court of the great
Cowan, 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(Steffof 10). 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, Niccol and Maffeo Polo arrived back in Venice,
where Niccol found out his wife had died while he was gone
(Rugoff 5). Their son, Marco, who was only 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(Rugoff 6). Then his father and
uncle suddenly reappeared, as if from the dead, after nine
years of traveling 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(Li Man Kin 10).
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
uncle finally set out for the court of Kublai Khan(Stefoff
13). 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 Cowan, who was
curious about “Latins”(Hull 29).
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 numerous countries and cultures, noting food,
dress, and religion unique to each(Li Man Kin 17). In
particular, under the khans’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. 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 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(Great Lives from History 16765). 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. The khan could also observe for
himself that young Marco was a good candidate. Finally,
Marco reported back so successfully from his fist mission-
informing the khan not only on business details but also on
colorful customs and other interesting trivia-that his
further appointment was confirmed. The journeys specifically
mentioned in Marco’s book, involving travel across China and
a sea voyage to India, suggests that the khan did indeed
trust him with some of the most difficult missions(Rugoff

The Polos stayed on for seventeen years, another
indication of how valued they were in the khan’s court.
Marco, his father, and his uncle not only survived-itself an
achievement amid the political hazards of the time-but also
prospered(Great Lives from History 1678). Apparently, the
elder Polos carried on their trading while Marco was
performing his missions; yet seventeen years is a long time
to trade without returning home to family and friends.
According to Macro, because the khan held them in such high
regard, he would not let them return home, but as the khan
aged the Polos began to fear what would happen after his
death(Hull 18).
Finally an opportunity to leave presented itself when
trusted emissaries were needed to accompany a Mongol
princess on a wedding voyage by sea to Persia, where she was
promised to the local khan. The Polos sailed from Cathay
with a fleet of fourteen ships and a wedding party of six
hundred people, not counting the sailors. Only a few members
of the wedding entourage survived the journey of 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, who had meanwhile
died, but to his son(Li Man Kin 21).

From Persia, the Polos made their way back to Venice.
They were robbed as soon as they got into Christian
territory, but they still managed to reach home in 1295,
with plenty of rich goods. According to Giovanni Battista
Ramusio, one of the early editors of Marco’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 were astounded, and then were disgusted
by their shabby appearance. Yet, according to Ramusio, the
scorn changed to delight when the returned travelers invited
everyone to a homecoming banquet, ripped apart their old
clothes, and let all the hidden jewels clatter to the
table(Great Lives from History 1676).

The rest of the world might have learned little about
the Polos’ travels if fate had not intervened in Marco’s
life. In his early forties, Marco was not yet ready to
settle down. Perhaps he was restless for further adventure,
or perhaps he felt obliged to fulfill his civic duties to
his native city-state. In any event, he became involved in
naval warfare between Venetians and their trading rivals,
the Genoese, and was captured. In 1298, the great traveler
across Asia and emissary of the khan found himself rotting
in a prison in Genoa-an experience that could have ended
tragically but instead took a lucky turn. In prison Marco
met a man named Rustichello from Persia, who was a writer of
romances(Stefoff 21). To pass the time, Marco dictated his
observations about Asia to Rustichello, who, in writing them
down, probably employed the Italianized Old French that 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 in 1299(Rugoff 32).

After his prison experience, Marco was content to lead
a quiet life in Venice with the rest of his family and bask
in his almost instant literary fame. He married Donata
Badoer, a member of the Venetian aristocracy. eventually
grew up to marry nobles. Thus Marco seems to have spent the
last part of his life moving in Venetian aristocratic
circles. After living what was then a long life, Marco died
in 1324, only seventy years of age. In his will he left
most of his modest wealth to his three daughters, a legacy
that included goods which he had brought back from Asia. His
will also set free a Tartar slave, who had remained with him
since his return from the court of the great khan(Li Man Kin
Works Cited
Great 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
International Publications, 1981. Rugoff, Milton. Marco
Polo’s Adventures In China. New York: American Heritage
Publishing Co., 1964.
Stefoff, Rebecca. Marco Polo and the Medieval Explorers.
Chelsea House Publishers, 1992.