5. Early Life
Before he became a world-renowned Italian traveler, merchant, and writer, Marco Polo was born on September 15th, 1254 in the city, and at that time Republic, of Venice, in what is today Italy. Marco's ancestor's were nobles from Dalmatia, the area along the Adriatic Sea near the Balkans. Since his father was away on a trip to the East, Marco was raised by his uncle and aunt following his mother's untimely death. From an early age, Marco was educated on mercantile subjects and foreign currency. Later, his interest turned towards cargo ships and the appraisal of goods. He avidly read works of Classical authors, and Marco also spoke French. He saw his father and second uncle again at age 15, upon their return from the East. At age 17, Marco accompanied his father and uncle Maffeo on their return to Cathay (China.
After Marco was taken by his father and uncle to the East, the young man learned a great deal about foreign culture and traditions all along his journey. They explored many places along the fabled Silk Road until they reached Cathay (China), where they were received by Kublai Khan's royal court. The Khan was so impressed by the young man's intelligence and humility, that Marco was later appointed by the Great Khan to serve as his foreign emissary to India and Burma. As part of this appointment, Marco also traveled extensively inside China. Here, he saw many things that had previously been unknown to virtually any European. After 17 years within the Khan's court, Polo decided to return back to his home to his Italian home in Venice.
Upon returning to Venice, Marco found his home city at war with the Republic of Genoa, another powerful Italian city-state with a reputation for loving to conquer and expands its territories. He promptly joined the war against the rival city as his native Venice fought for Mediterranean dominance. Unfortunately, Polo was captured and imprisoned by the Genoese opposition. During his time in prison, Marco narrated his travels to a fellow prisoner, Rusticiano of Pisa, who was himself a celebrated romance writer. They together composed Book of Marvels, as it was originally titled, which became a significant guide to European merchants who wanted to do business in the East. The travelogue text would later be referred to as The Travels of Marco Polo, telling of how Marco had explored so many exotic countries along the way to China and back. His stories of Eastern countries made him a household name in his time, before which many Europeans had little, if any, knowledge of countries outside of Europe.
The Polos traveled together and faced many challenges along the way. The different languages spoken in the different countries they passed proved to be some of the largest barriers. Many thousands of travel miles were covered on horseback, often in extreme weather, and meeting barbarian tribesmen from time to time only added to the challenges. After 17 years in the court of the aging Kublai Khan, the Polos deemed it necessary to leave China, afraid that upon the Khan's demise they would be harmed by the Khan's enemies. They were initially denied their request to leave, and only later were they allowed to return back to Venice. They carried a golden tablet passport from the Khan that ensured safe travel and assistance throughout his dominion. Nonetheless, once back in Venice, Marco found his nation at war, and himself ultimately captured.
1. Death and Legacy
On January 8th, 1324, Marco Polo died at the age of 70. He left behind a wife and three daughters, as well as a substantial inheritance for them. He left an often times unbelieving European world a vast compendium of his extensive travels, and many Europeans of his day called him a liar for his exotic descriptions of the East. Only later would his travel stories be confirmed by historians as authentic descriptions of the East. Of Marco Polo, the great 19th Century Scottish philosopher Henry Yule said, "He was the first traveler to trace a route across the whole longitude of Asia, naming and describing kingdom after kingdom.....". Marco also left the world with an intriguing epitaph, "I have only told the half of what I saw!"