Gateway to the Classics: Famous Men of the Middle Ages by John H. Haaren
Famous Men of the Middle Ages by  John H. Haaren

Marco Polo

Lived from 1254‑1324


S OME years before St. Louis led his last Crusade there was born in Venice a boy named Marco Polo. His father was a wealthy merchant who often went on trading journeys to distant lands.

In 1271, when Marco was seventeen years old, he accompanied his father and uncle on a journey through the Holy Land, Persia and Tartary, and at length to the Empire of China—then called Cathay. It took the travelers three years to reach Cathay.

The emperor of Cathay was a monarch named Kublai Khan, who lived in Peking.

Marco's father and uncle had been in Cathay once before and had entertained Kublai Khan by telling him about the manners and customs of Europe.

So when the two Venetian merchants again appeared in Peking, Kublai Khan was glad to see them. He was also greatly pleased with the young Marco, whom he invited to the palace.

Important positions at the Chinese court were given to Marco's father and uncle, and so they and Marco lived in the country for some years. Marco studied the Chinese language, and it was not very long before he could speak it.

When he was about twenty-one Kublai Khan sent him on very important business to a distant part of China. He did the work well and from that time was often employed as an envoy of the Chinese monarch. His travels were sometimes in lands never before visited by Europeans and he had many strange adventures among the almost unknown tribes of Asia. Step by step he was promoted. For several years he was governor of a great Chinese city.

Finally he and his father and uncle desired to return to Venice. They had all served Kublai Khan faithfully and he had appreciated it and given them rich rewards; but he did not wish to let them go.


Venetian ships

While the matter was being talked over an embassy arrived in Peking from the king of Persia. This monarch desired to marry the daughter of Kublai Khan, the Princess Cocachin, and he had sent to ask her father for her hand. Consent was given, and Kublai Khan fitted out a fleet of fourteen ships to carry the wedding party to Persia.

The Princess Cocachin was a great friend of Marco Polo, and urged her father to allow him to go with the party. Finally Kublai Khan gave his consent. Marco's father and uncle were also allowed to go, and the three Venetians left China.

The fleet with the wedding party on board sailed southward on the China Sea. It was a long and perilous voyage. Stops were made at Borneo, Sumatra, Ceylon and other places, until the ships entered the Persian Gulf and the princess was safely landed. After they reached the capital of Persia the party, including the three Venetians, was entertained by the Persians for weeks in a magnificent manner and costly presents were given to all.

At last the Venetians left their friends, went to the Black Sea and took ship for Venice.

They had been away so long and were so much changed in appearance that none of their relations and old friends knew them when they arrived in Venice. As they were dressed in Tatar costume and sometimes spoke the Chinese language to one another, they found it hard to convince people that they were members of the Polo family.

At length, in order to show that they were the men that they declared themselves to be, they gave a dinner to all their relations and old friends. When the guests arrived they were greeted by the travelers, arrayed in gorgeous Chinese robes of crimson satin. After the first course they appeared in crimson damask; after the second, they changed their costumes to crimson velvet; while at the end of the dinner they appeared in the usual garb of wealthy Venetians.

"Now, my friends," said Marco, "I will show you something that will please you." He then brought into the room the rough Tatar coats which he and his father and uncle had worn when they reached Venice. Cutting open the seams, he took from inside the lining packets filled with rubies, emeralds and diamonds. It was the finest collection of jewels ever seen in Venice.

The guests were now persuaded that their hosts were indeed what they claimed to be.


E IGHT hundred years before Marco Polo's birth, some of the people of North Italy had fled before Attila to the muddy islands of the Adriatic and founded Venice upon them. Since then the little settlement had become the most wealthy and powerful city of Europe. Venice was the queen of the Adriatic and her merchants were princes. They had vessels to bring the costly wares of the East to their wharves; they had warships to protect their rich cargoes from the pirates of the Mediterranean; they carried on wars. At the time when Marco Polo returned from Cathay they were at war with Genoa.

The two cities were fighting for the trade of the world. In a great naval battle the Venetians were completely defeated. Marco Polo was in the battle and with many of his countrymen was captured by the enemy. For a year he was confined in a Genoese prison. One of his fellow-prisoners was a skillful penman and Marco dictated to him an account of his experiences in China, Japan, and other Eastern countries. This account was carefully written out. Copies of the manuscript exist to this day. One of these is in a library in Paris. It was carried into France in the year 1307. Another copy is preserved in the city of Berne. It is said that the book was translated into many languages, so that people in all parts of Europe learned about Marco's adventures.

About a hundred and seventy-five years after the book was written, the famous Genoese, Christopher Columbus, planned his voyage across the Atlantic. It is believed that he had read Marco's description of Java, Sumatra and other East India Islands, which he thought he had reached when he discovered Haiti and Cuba. So Marco Polo may have suggested to Columbus the voyage which led to the discovery of America.

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