252. The Travels of Marco Polo (c.1300)

The travels of Venetian merchant Marco Polo throughout the Mongol Empire of Asia, and his service to the Great Khan Khubilai. My copy was the Everyman’s Library volume, newly revised and edited by Peter Harris (ISBN 9780307269133)

Thoughts : Largely a description of the many cities, kingdoms and societies encountered in the travels of Marco, his father Niccolo and his uncle Maffio across Asia to the court of Khubilai Khan, their sojourn over many years in the Khan’s service, and their eventual return to Europe after escorting a princess to India.

Much of the description of the many cities throughout what we now think of as China, was repetitive and a bit tedious to read, with the same reports of the people repeated (they are idolators (Buddhists), paying homage to the Khan, wearing costly silks, and speaking their own languages, and using the Khan’s paper currency (a novelty to Europeans at that time, etc.) ; until it occurred to me what this meant. The Khan was happy to allow his subjects to retain their religion, customs and languages, but ensured he controlled the economy and collected the tribute of a portion of all their industries.

Outside the Empire, Polo described other areas he visited or believed he had reliable reports of, including Japan, Vietnam, Indonesia, India, the Middle East and even Russia. These descriptions are far more ‘imaginative’, with dog-headed men, and giant rocs carrying away elephants, and sound more like the travels of Gulliver or the some of the more exotic excerpts from Herodotus.

Upon his return to Italy, the Venetian Polo took up captaincy of a war-galley and was captured and thrown into gaol by the Genoans, where he detailed his adventures to his cellmate Rusticello, who wrote them down and had them published. Degrees of belief and disbelief followed. Khubilai Khan died in 1301, six years after Marco reached Venice, and the Mongol Empire disintegrated soon after, the Chinese and others restored to their own sovereignty.

Favourite quotes/scenes:

The Great Khan hunting in his private forests, with small captive leopards carried slung on horseback to be released and bring down deer or goats (page 100)

The much celebrated banquet scenes where court magicians send goblets of wine floating through the air to the Khan’s lips (page 101)

A birthday blessing to the Khan from all his subjects, translating as

“may you experience throughout the year uninterrupted felicity and possess treasures adequate to all your expenses”     (page 135)

Digressions/diversions:   I still find it amazing that silken garments of such beauty can be spun from the infinitesimally fine extrusions of grubs.

Personal rating:  4/10. Interesting but not riveting.

Kimmy’s rating: Amused by the people of Carazan who routinely carry poison in case they are arrested and face torture. “Their rulers, who are aware of this practice, are always provided with the dung of dogs, which they oblige the accused to swallow immediately after, as it occasions, their vomiting up the poison…”  (page 179) 

In the years 1290-1299:

  • Franco-Scottish alliance formed 1295. Edward I of England invades Scotland 1296, defeats John Balliol, the ruler he himself advocated, and takes the Stone of Scone, the Scottish Coronation stone, back to Westminster (where it was installed in the Coronation Chair of the English Monarchs until its return to Scotland in 1996). Edward then invaded northern France 1297. William Wallace leads revolt of Scottish forces, but is defeated at Falkirk, 1298.
  • War between Venice and Genoa ends 1299 (luckily for Marco, who only faced a relatively comfortable one year’s imprisonment before his release)
  • Spectacles in use c.1290

from The Book of Key Facts, published by Paddington Press, 1978



  1. Rustichello wrote it in langues d’Oil, a lingua franca of crusaders and western merchants in the Orient. From the beginning, there has been incredulity over Polo’s sometimes fabulous stories, as well as a scholarly debate in recent times. Some have questioned whether Marco had actually travelled to China or was just repeating stories that he had heard from other travellers.


  2. is divided into four books. Book One describes the lands of the Middle East and Central Asia that Marco encountered on his way to China. Book Two describes China and the court of Kublai Khan. Book Three describes some of the coastal regions of the East: Japan, India, Sri Lanka, Southeast Asia, and the east coast of Africa. Book Four describes some of the then-recent wars among the Mongols and some of the regions of the far north, like Russia. Polo’s writings included descriptions of cannibals and spice-growers.


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