December 7, 2023 | Rachel Seigel

Adventurous Facts About Marco Polo

"I did not write half of what I saw, for I knew I would not be believed". —Marco Polo

Born in 1254 in Venice, Italy, Marco Polo set out on a journey to Asia with his father and uncle, and later chronicled his experiences. His book The Travels of Marco Polo was an inspiration for travellers such as Christopher Columbus. Below are 25 adventurous facts about the man behind the myth.

1. Teenage Traveller

When Marco Polo left on his Asian trip to the court of Kublai Khan with his father and Uncle, he was only 17 years old. The trip was probably the first time he’d journeyed away from home.

marco polo

2. Prisoner Bird

In 1298, three years after his return, Polo was made a gentleman commander of a Venitian ship. His ship was seized during a confrontation with the Genoese, and he was held as a captive.

Marco Polo facts Wikipedia

3. Ghostwriter

While incarcerated, Polo encountered Rustichello of Pisa. Rustichello was a famous romance writer, and Polo told his life story to Rustichello so he could write it down. When the two were released in 1299, Polo's name-making book was complete.

Marco Polo facts Marco Polo (1982–1983), NBC

4. Murky Origins

Historians generally agree that Polo was born sometime around the year 1254, but they have often debated the exact date and location of his birth. The popular belief is that he was born in Venice, but some scholars think that he might have been born on the island of Korcula in what’s now Croatia. According to the theory, Polo’s father was not actually from Italy, and he changed his name from Pilic to Polo when he settled in Venice.

Marco Polo facts Wikimedia Commons

5. Mostly Parentless

Polo's mother ceased to exist around 1260 when he was still a child. Little, however, is known about his childhood, and he was largely raised by his aunt and uncle.

Marco Polo facts Marco Polo (2014–2016), Netflix

6. Return Journey

Polo’s journey to China marked the second time the Polos had visited Asia. His father Niccolo and uncle Maffeo had already travelled to the East—indeed, they were travelling when Polo was born in 1254.

Marco Polo facts Wikimedia Commons

7. Stranger Danger

When Polo set out with his father and uncle on their more extensive trip, he barely knew his companions: the brothers only returned home from their first trip in 1269, when Marco was already 15.

Marco Polo facts Marco Polo (2014–2016), Netflix

8. A Minor Setback

When the Polo brothers returned home in 1269, they found out that Pope Clement IV was no longer alive. Hoping that a new Pope would be elected soon, they stayed in Venice for two years. When there was still no election, they started for the Mongol court. In what is now Israel, the papal legate Teobaldo of Piacenza entrusted them with letters for Kublai Khan—but then good old Teobaldo got elected Pope just days after the Polos left Israel, and the crew had to turn around to get proper credentials from now-Pope Gregory X.

Marco Polo facts Wikimedia Commons

9. Not a Quick Trip

The Polos originally planned to stay in Asia just a few years, but ended up staying much longer; Marco Polo was gone from Venice for a staggering 24 years.

Marco Polo facts Marco Polo (2014–2016), Netflix

10. Perilous Journey

The journey to Asia wasn’t easy, and Marco faced a number of challenges. While in what is now Afghanistan, he fell ill and was forced to take refuge in the mountains while he recovered. He also reported the difficulty of crossing the Gobi desert, writing that it took a month to cross it at its narrowest point.

Marco Polo facts Marco Polo (2014–2016), Netflix

11. How Far Did They Go?

For years, historians have been questioning whether or not Polo did indeed make it to China. There’s no actual proof beyond his book that he made it that far, but the amount of detailed knowledge that Polo outlines in the book suggests that he almost certainly did.

Marco Polo facts Marco Polo (2014–2016), Netflix

12. The Myth of Spaghetti

One of the more popular legends about Polo’s travels is that he brought pasta to Venice from China. This isn't true, and pasta had been part of Italian cuisine since before Marco’s birth. He did, however, bring something even more revolutionary to Europe: the idea of paper money.

Nicest Compliment FactsPexels

13. Not a Trailblazer

Polo wasn’t the first traveler to the Far East. In the 1240s, the Franciscan monk Giovanni da Pian del Carpini reached China and met with the Great Kahn. William of Rubruck then travelled east in the 1250s, aiming to convert the Mongols to Christianity.

Marco Polo factsMarco Polo (2014–2016), Netflix

14. More than Traders

By trade, the Polos were merchants who sold rare items like silk, jewels, and spice, but their travels were not simply trading missions. Kublai Kahn first commissioned the trio to be emissaries, and Marco was later sent to China and Southeast Asia as a tax collector and as Kahn’s special messenger.

Marco Polo factsMarco Polo (2014–2016), Netflix

15. Learning the Language

Young Marco immersed himself in Eastern culture, customs, and language. He demonstrated a curiosity for his surroundings, and claimed to have learned four languages. Historians have speculated that these languages were probably Mongolian, Persian, Arabic, and Turkish. You'll note that Chinese isn't on that list!

Marco Polo facts Marco Polo (1982–1983), NBC

16. Polo’s Sheep

Several hundred years following Polo's departure from life, a species of sheep was named in his honor. In his book, Polo mentions observing a mountain sheep in what’s now northeastern Afghanistan, and in 1841, zoologist Edward Blyth referred to a sheep called Ovis ammon polii.

Marco Polo facts Shutterstock

17. Animal or Myth?

Throughout his travels, Polo encountered many unusual animals that he often mistook for mythical creatures. He described crocodiles as huge "serpents" that could “swallow a man … at one time,” and he thought horned beasts such as the Asian rhinoceros were unicorns.

Marco Polo facts Wikimedia Commons, Ankit konwar

18. Time to Go!

Around 1292, the Polos willingly accompanied a Mongol princess to Persia, intending to proceed to Europe afterwards. The Polos had been itching to go home. They didn't just miss their families; Kublai Khan was in his 80s, and they were anxious about the political overhaul that might take place when he breathed his last and its implications for foreigners.

Marco Polo facts Wikimedia Commons

19. The Journey Home

When the Polos left the Khan, they set out by sea with a group of several hundred passengers and sailors to Persia. The journey was perilous, and all but 18 of the original passengers succumbed to disease or storms; meanwhile, all the Polos, along with the princess, made it through unscathed.

Marco Polo facts Wikimedia Commons

20. No Possibility of Return

Should Polo have been harboring any thoughts of journeying back to Asia, the end of Kublai Kahn's reign extinguished those aspirations. Following the Khan's demise, the Mongol empire began to deteriorate, and tribal groups recovered the land along the Silk Road. As the land route to China became more dangerous, very few travellers had the nerve to attempt the journey.

Marco Polo facts Marco Polo (2014–2016), Netflix

21. Strangers in Their Homeland

When the Polos returned to Venice, they weren’t exactly greeted with a welcoming party. After being gone for over two decades, the people in their hometown didn’t recognise them, and the travellers found speaking in their native tongue, Italian, difficult.

Marco Polo facts Getty Images

22. East Comes West

In addition to introducing paper money to the Western world, Polo also described several other Chinese innovations to the West. Polo brought coal, eyeglasses, and a variety of rare spices to Europe's attention.

Marco Polo facts Wikimedia Commons

23. It’s Not About Him

Polo never intended his book to be read as a memoir. He wanted it to be a description of the places that he and his family visited and what they saw there. Because of this, few personal details about his life are included.

Marco Polo facts Marco Polo (2014–2016), Netflix

24. Lasting Legacy

Polo’s chronicle of his adventures inspired the explorers who followed him. Christopher Columbus carried a copy of the book with him on his voyages, and had even planned to follow Polo’s route and make contact with the Kublai Khan’s successor. As in so many things, Columbus was in error here: the Mongol empire had fallen.

Scandalous Historical FactsWikipedia

25. Fact or Fiction

For years, people thought that Marco Polo’s tales were almost entirely made up, and even though he said he was telling the truth for his entire life, on his deathbed he said “I did not tell half of what I saw,” indicating that perhaps there were even more marvels he found that remain unknown.

Marco Polo facts Wikimedia Commons

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11


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