Who was Marco Polo?

By: Alia Hoyt
Marco Polo, one of Europe's most successful explorers.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

It's hard to imagine not knowing or being able to find out about the people, lands and cultures around the world. The Internet has made it possible to acquire extensive knowledge with the click of a mouse. And before the Internet, books, television and other media were readily available sources of information. In the not-too-distant past, however, people could only imagine what lay beyond the scope of their land.

Enter Marco Polo, one of the greatest voyagers of all time (think Indiana Jones without the stuntmen), whose writings have influenced other travelers for centuries. At the time that Polo embarked on his sojourn, Western Europeans knew very little about the countries Polo visited. China in particular was a mystery because it's surrounded by treacherous mountain terrain, deserts and oceans. Before travel from Europe to China became commonplace, information and goods from faraway lands were obtained primarily from people who traveled the Silk Road. The Silk Road was a series of trade routes that allowed merchants to transport goods such as silk and precious gems from Central Asia to Europe [source: University of California, Irvine]. Marco Polo's travels on the Silk Road and other ancient trade routes, which took him farther than any European before him, were chronicled in his book "The Description of the World" (also known as "The Travels of Marco Polo"). This book was Europe's first glimpse into unknown parts of the world [source: National Geographic].


This print from a 14th-century miniature shows the Polos leaving Venice en route to China.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Marco Polo was born in Venice in 1254 and raised by his mother. His father, Niccolo Polo, was a successful trader who spent most of Marco's childhood traveling with Marco's uncle. The two men returned to Venice when Marco was a teenager, only to find out that his mother had died while they were gone. During their travels in China, Marco's father and uncle made an unlikely friend in Mongol ruler Kublai Khan.

Khan asked the explorers to return to China with a hundred or so missionaries and priests to teach his people about Christianity, as well as holy oil blessed by the Pope. The duo enlisted Marco in this mission in 1271 when he was 17 [source: Metropolitan Museum of Art]. It was easy obtaining the holy oil, but the group had less success commissioning missionaries -- two friars were sent by the church, but they turned around and went home [source: National Geographic].

­All in all, the trio spent 24 years on the road, winding through a variety of treacherous and beautiful landscapes in the Middle East, Central Asia and China that spanned more than 24,000 miles (38,624 km) [source: Metropolitan Museum of Art]. The bulk of their time (17 years) was spent serving Khan's court in China [source: National Geographic].

On the next page, we'll discuss how Marco made it to China and what he was up to during his stay in Khan's court.


The Great Sojourn: Travels of Marco Polo

Kublai Khan
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

On the way to see Kublai Khan in China, the group traveled via trade routes in countries such as Persia, Indonesia, China and India (see the map at Metropolitan Museum of Art for their specific route), where they learned about new products -- including porcelain, coal, silk and the compass. They also viewed paper money for the first time [source: National Geographic]. As you can imagine, the sojourn took a great deal longer than it would in today's world of planes, trains and automobiles. The Polo family also had to contend with the elements: Rain, snow and other inclement weather caused the trip from Venice to China to be a three-and-a-half-year-trek. Another factor in this delay is the belief that Marco was very sick along the way for nearly a year, possibly with malaria [source: National Geographic].

The group finally reached Shangdu, China, in 1275. Marco was introduced to Khan and quickly won him over. The Mongols (to whom Marco referred as "Tartars") had ruled China and other Asian lands since they took them by force in the 13th century with their fierce horseback warfare. Traditionally, the Mongols lived as nomads; however, leaders such as Genghis Khan recognized that a successful empire would have to be built on different principles. As such, the Mongols supported foreign craftsmen, merchants and traders. They also welcomed religious missionaries and even recruited better-educated foreigners to supply administrative skills that the Mongols lacked [source: Metropolitan Museum of Art].


This miniature of the Bodleni manuscript of Marco Polo's travel book shows a scene from Venice.
Roger Viollet Collection/Getty Images

Khan took such a liking to Marco that he made him a courier of the court, supplying him with a passport of gold and requiring him to travel to the ends of China and back. These travels made Marco the first European to see the width and breadth of the country. Marco also claims in his book that Khan appointed him to a position equivalent to governor, although detractors say that he probably topped out as a low-level official [source: National Geographic].

Overall, Marco viewed China as a hotbed of industry that far surpassed the rest of the world in terms of technological and cultural advances. Despite these luxuries, Marco, his father and uncle decided to skip town after 17 years in Khan's court. They foresaw political unrest -- the Chinese were growing resentful of the Mongols and the aging Khan [source: National Geographic]. However, Khan refused to allow them to leave at first. Luckily, salvation came in the form of Persian emissaries, who arrived to request a princess for Khan's great-nephew. Khan decided the Polos would be among the trusted crew to transport the princess by sea [source: National Geographic]. After delivering the princess safely, the Polos trekked home to Venice.


Life after Marco Polo's Great Voyage

This illustration shows Marco Polo and his fellow explorers along the Silk Road to China.
MPI/Getty Images

Life was anything but ordinary for Marco following his return home to Venice in 1295. Very little is known about Marco's personal life, although he is believed to have married a woman named Donata and had three daughters: Fantina, Bellela and Moreta. Marco didn't put pen to paper about his travels until he wound up in prison for his role in a battle against the city of Genoa. Unfortunately for Marco, Genoa handily defeated Venice and he was sentenced to a year for his military activities [source: History Channel].

He made good use of that time, however, by dictating the story of his journey to and from China to a fellow inmate by the name of Rustichello, a known writer. First published in French, Marco's book has been warped into more than 150 different versions, thanks to the inaccurate translations and editing done by the monks and printers who reproduced it. To top it off, some scholars believe that Rustichello embellished portions of Marco's original dictation to make it more interesting, so some people doubt the truthfulness of the tales [source: National Geographic]. Critics claim that Marco would have included references to the Great Wall of China, chopsticks and the Chinese practice of foot binding, had he really made it that far across the country [source: Fordham University]. Loyalists, however, assert that the really big parts of the Great Wall hadn't yet been built by the time he visited. In addition, he detailed the usage of paper money, which no other European before him had described.


­Whether or not you believe that his journey took place the way he described it, Marco's literary work has had a massive influence throughout history. Not only was he the inspiration for the popular pool game "Marco Polo" (see Games Kids Play for official rules), but also his descriptions resulted in Europe's first maps of Asia. What's more, his travels inspired many other explorers to hit the road. In fact, Christopher Columbus was in search of Marco's described location of the Orient when he stumbled upon America in 1492 [source: History Channel].

Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links

  • Brehier, Louis. "Marco Polo." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 12. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. 25 Sept. 2008http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/12217a.htm
  • "China's Age of Invention." NOVA Online. PBS. November 2000 (25 Sept. 2008). http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/lostempires/china/age.html
  • Edwards, Mike. "Marco Polo, Part I." National Geographic Magazine. May 2001. http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/features/world/asia/mongolia/marco-polo-i-text.html
  • Edwards, Mike. "Marco Polo, Part II: In China." National Geographic Magazine. May 2001. http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/features/world/asia/china/marco-polo-ii-text.html
  • "In the Footsteps of Marco Polo." Metropolitan Museum of Art. 2000 (25 Sept. 2008). http://www.metmuseum.org/explore/marco/get.html
  • "Marco Polo Begins His Journey East." Conquer Your Neck and Conquer the World: National Geographic. (25 Sept. 2008). http://www.nationalgeographic.com/conquer/land/photo3.html
  • Polo, Marco. History.com. A&E Television. 1996 (25 Sept. 2008). http://www.history.com/encyclopedia.do?articleId=219550
  • Marco Polo: On the Tartars. Medieval Sourcebook. 1996 (25 Sept. 2008). http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/mpolo44-46.html
  • "Secrets of Lost Empires: China's Bridge." NOVA Transcripts. 29 Feb. 2000 (25 Sept. 2008). http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/transcripts/27fbchina.html
  • Wild, Oliver. "The Silk Road." University of California, Irvine. 1992 (25 Sept. 2008) http://www.ess.uci.edu/~oliver/silk.html#5