Who was Marco Polo? - Biography, Facts & Timeline

Instructor: Flint Johnson

Flint has tutored mathematics through precalculus, science, and English and has taught college history. He has a Ph.D. from the University of Glasgow

Learn all about Marco Polo, the famous Venetian who lived in the Mongolian Empire for 24 years and later wrote about his experiences. Then take the quiz and see how much you remember about this medieval world traveler.

Marco Polo: Early Life

Marco Polo in Mongolian clothing
Marco Polo

Imagine living a third of your life in an exotic land in the service of a dynastic ruler, traveling to new and unfamiliar places where none of your countrymen had ever gone before. If you can imagine that, you can imagine the life of Marco Polo.

Marco Polo was born into a Venetian merchant family in 1254 in a city that was part of a fractured Western Europe. To the East of the city, there was the friendly Byzantine Empire that controlled Eastern Europe into Turkey. However, the Muslims controlled the Middle East, including all the trade routes into Asia and the faraway Mongolian Empire, which made access to these areas difficult. The inaccessibility of the area is one of the main reasons why Marco Polo's time in this part of the world was so extraordinary.

The year before Marco was born, his father, Niccolo, and his uncle, Maffeo, left on an extended trading trip; they spent six years living in Constantinople before moving on to present day Ukraine and Uzbekistan. In 1260, the brothers liquidated their fortune and used their contacts to travel through the Muslim countries and into Central Asia. While there, they met Kublai Khan, the ruler of the Mongolian Empire. Kublai deployed the brothers on a trip to visit the pope in Europe, ordering them to bring back 100 educated priests and some holy oil.

On their visit to Italy in 1269, the brothers met Marco Polo, who was by now a teenager, for the first time. In Niccolo's absence, Marco's mother had died, leaving him to be raised and educated by an aunt and uncle. When Niccolo and Maffeo decided to return to Asia, they took Marco along on a trip that would last 24 years.

Asian Travels

On the way to Asia, Marco Polo and his uncle made stops in Afghanistan, Armenia, the Holy Land and Persia, among other locations, before reaching Beijing, about 3-4 years later. In Beijing, they met Kublai Khan and even became part of his court in Xanadu. During the Polos 17 years in China, Marco served as a confidant, emissary and official for Kublai Khan. He also had the opportunity to visit Burma, India and Tibet, places to which Europeans had not previously traveled.

Kublai Khan so valued the services of the Polos that he was reluctant to let them return home. He finally relented in 1292, on the condition they escort a Mongol princess to Persia, where she was to wed his great-nephew. The perilous trip across the Indian Ocean took two years, during which time, many of the passengers died. Kublai Khan himself died while the Polos were en route to Persia.

A portrait of Marco Polo back in Venice
Marco Polo back in Italy

Finding his city-state at war with Genoa, Marco Polo took command of a Venetian ship, which led to his capture by the enemy and imprisonment in a Genovese prison. It was during his imprisonment that he dictated the story of his adventures to another prisoner, which were eventually distributed as The Travels of Marco Polo. Marco was released from prison in 1299 and married in 1300. He spent the last 24 years of his life growing a business and raising his three daughters. Marco Polo died in 1324 at the age of 69.

The Travels of Marco Polo

As all books were handwritten until the invention of the printing press in 1439, a definitive or original version of Marco Polo's book does not exist. However, historians and research experts have been able to confirm much of his story. During Marco Polo's lifetime, not everyone believed what he wrote about his time in China. In Italy, the book was referred to as Il Milione or The Million Lies.

In spite of his critics' skepticism, The Travels of Marco Polo contributed to the historical understanding of European geography and served as an inspiration for European explorers. According to some reports, Christopher Columbus himself brought along a copy of Marco Polo's book when he traveled to the New World in 1492.

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