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Definition: Polo, Marco from Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable

The Venetian merchant (1254-1324) famous for his account of his travels in Asia. He visited China in 1274 bearing letters from Pope Gregory X to KUBLAI KHAN and spent 24 years in the East. He gained the nickname of Marco Millione, ‘Marco Millions’, from his frequent use of this word to describe the wealth of China and the Great Khan. His surname, Polo, is a form of Paolo, ‘Paul’.

Summary Article: Polo, Marco
From Chambers Biographical Dictionary


Venetian merchant, traveller and writer

Marco Polo was born of a noble Venetian merchant family. At the time of his birth, his father and uncle were on an expedition to Bokhara and Cathay (China). They were well-received by Kublai Khan, who commissioned them as envoys to the pope to seek a hundred learned Europeans for the imperial court. They were unsuccessful in this commission (1269), and started out again in 1271, taking the young Marco with them. They arrived at the court of Kublai Khan in 1275, after travelling across Central Asia and through the Gobi Desert to Tangut and Shangtu. The emperor took special notice of Marco, and sent him as envoy to Yunnan, northern Burma, Karakorum, Cochin-China and southern India.

For three years Marco Polo served as governor of Yang Chow, and helped to subdue the city of Saianfu. The emperor at first refused to allow the Polos to leave his court, but eventually they sailed to Persia, finally reaching Venice in 1295, and bringing with them the great wealth they had accumulated.

In 1298 he commanded a galley at the Battle of Curzola, and after the Venetians' defeat he was taken prisoner for a year at Genoa. There he wrote an account of his travels, Divisament dou Monde, either from memory (dictated to a fellow prisoner) or from notes which he had written for Kublai Khan. This account is one of the most important sources for our knowledge of China and the East before the 19th century. After his release (1298), he returned to Venice, where he spent the rest of his life.

  • Wood, Frances, Did Marco Polo go to China? (1995); Hart, H H, Marco Polo, Venetian Adventurer (1967); Rugoff, Milton, Marco Polo's Adventures in China (1964).

"I have not told even the half of the things that I have seen."

- Comment on being accused of exaggeration in his accounts of China (c.1320). Quoted in R H Poole and P Finch (eds), Newnes Pictorial Knowledge (vol 2, 1950).

© Chambers Harrap Publishers Ltd 2011

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