His name has become a byword for epic adventure. Marco Polo – the man who, way back in the 13th century, explored the Silk Road all the way to China.
Or did he?
Some historians claim he simply wrote down gossip he heard from other merchants. There are those who doubt that he even left Venice.
They have accused him of being an armchair traveller, that at best he never went further east than Persia (modern Iran), and that he garnered all his information there.
His fellow Venetians certainly didn’t believe him. They called him ‘Messer Marco Milioni’ (Mister Marco Millions), a snide reference to his claims that Kublai Khan was the richest man in the world.
Their scepticism is understandable. After all, in the Middle Ages, his claims must have appeared outlandish at best. He had suddenly reappeared after twenty-four years away from home, said he’d been all the way to Xanadu and back, and had served as an ambassador and tax collector for the Mongol emperor.
However, we now know that he wasn’t the first European to go to all the way to Cathay, now modern China. A Franciscan monk – Giovanni da Pian del Carpini – went there twenty years before Marco Polo and other Catholic emissaries soon followed, including William of Rubruck, who tried to convert the Mongols to Christianity – a journey that inspired me to write Silk Road.
Marco Polo set off with his father and uncle in 1271, while still in his teens. Their aims were far more prosaic. His family were all merchants and they hoped to turn a profit.
On his return in 1295, he started raving about unicorns, and how the Chinese used money made out of paper – unheard of in the west at that time – and said that they even had Christian churches. He described the Khan’s postal service and handed around hand-drawn maps of Alaska. It sounded bizarre to thirteenth century Venetians.
Some modern historians have been equally incredulous. They have pointed out that he failed to mention the Great Wall of China, tea, Chinese characters or foot-binding.
They forget that the Great Wall, as we know it, wasn’t built until two hundred yards later. Also, his Mongol hosts were not Chinese. They didn’t drink tea, use chopsticks or Chinese script. They certainly didn’t bind women’s feet – Mongol women were supposed to do much the same work as men.
One version of Marco Polo’s book does mention the dainty walk of Chinese women, though he didn’t realise the reason for it.
Modern studies have further shown that Marco Polo’s descriptions of the commercial details that would have really interested him – such as profit margins on salt mining – are accurate and unique. He also described the use of watertight compartments, a Chinese invention, in the khan’s ships, which would have been especially fascinating to a Venetian.
And there were indeed six Nestorian churches in Zhengiang and one in Hangzhou, founded by a Sogdian priest from Samarkand.
He was also able to accurately describe nighttime constellations he had seen to the Italian astrologer, Pietro d’Abano. We now know these stars can only be seen from Sumatra and the South China Sea.
But did he exaggerate? Undoubtedly.
The fault lies, as it so often does, with a fiction author.
In 1298, three years after he returned from his journey, Marco Polo was captured after leading a Venetian galley into battle against the rival Italian city-state of Genoa. His cell mate in prison was Rustichello of Pisa, a talented writer of romances, who took on the job as his ghostwriter. They finished an account of his travels during the year they were locked up.
‘Profit Margins on Salt Production in Cathay’ wasn’t a catchy title. Rustichello wanted another bestseller. So he called it The Book of Marvels and added a few fantastic and romantic elements to turn it into a bestseller.
Which is why the account of Marco Polo’s meeting with Kublai Khan at the court in Shang’tu is almost identical to the arrival of Rustichello’s Tristan at the court of King Arthur in Camelot.
It’s also why the Polos were said to have provided the Mongols with military equipment for their successful siege of Xiangyang – which took place two years before they left Venice. Just Rustichello bending the truth a little, like Peter Morgan writing The Crown for Netflix.
But does that mean Marco Polo didn’t go to China? The balance of probabilities says he most certainly did. And Mister Millions certainly never backed down from his tale. Even on his deathbed, he stuck to his guns.
His last words: “I did not tell half of what I saw.”
Read more epic historical fiction about the SILK ROAD.