Are the travels of Marco Polo fact or fiction

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A portrait of Marco Polo

Marco Polo was one of the greatest’ explorers of the Middle Ages and the first person to make Europe aware China's extraordinary power and culture. He recounted his travels, throughout Asia, in a book that made him famous. The influence of the story of Marco Polo and his travels on Europeans cannot be overstated. His adventures inspired many later explorers, such as Christopher Columbus and his accounts did much to encourage the development of cartography.

However, not everyone believed Polo’s accounts of his travel in Asia and China. Many have regarded his account as a delightful work of fiction and believe that was a liar. Were Marco Polo’s travels were based on actual events and are the Italian’s account plausible? How reliable is Polo's account as a historical document?

Life of Marco Polo

Marco was born in 1254 in the Republic of Venice, which was a great mercantile power in medieval Europe and had extensive trading contacts with the Muslim world. He was born into a successful family of merchants. We know little about his early life, but he appears to have been apprenticed to a merchant and received little formal education. At the age of seventeen, he accompanied his uncle and father on a trading expedition to Asia. They had already traded and traveled in Asia for many years.

The Polos left Venice and did not return home for 24 years. They had traveled the Silk Road and made their way to China and they appear to have been very successful. Marco apparently even served in the administration of the Emperor and had visited the Imperial court, many times.[1]

The Polos returned to Venice in 1295 with a great many gemstones and jewels. Marco was a wealthy man and married the daughter of a leading merchant. Venice was frequently at war with its great rival, the Italian city-state of Genoa. Marco was so wealthy that he fitted out a warship which he personally commanded. He was captured at the great Venetian defeat by Genoa at the battle of Curzola (1298) and was imprisoned by the Genoese and held for ransom.

In prison, the merchant was held captive with Rustichello da Pisa, who was a well-known popular writer. Marco recounted his many adventures in Asia to the Pisan writer. Rustichello later used Marco’s stories and he incorporated them into a book.[2] The book The Travels of Marco Polo was a best-seller and was read throughout Europe. Marco was later released and returned to his native Venice. Polo continued to trade but he never again left his home city and he died in 1324. There has been controversy over the veracity of his claims, since his death.

The travels in China and elsewhere

A medieval miniature of Marco in China

Based on the book, it is possible to reconstruct the travels of Marco. It has been estimated that he traveled over 15,000 miles on horseback, ship and foot. The books opens with an account of his uncle and father traveling the Silk Road and meeting the great Emperor, Kublai Khan, the Emperor of China in his capital Dadu (present-day Beijing). He was the grandson of the Mongol conqueror Genghis Khan and he ruled Northern China and later conquered south China and beyond, forging one of the greatest Empires in the Medieval World.

Kublai Khan founded the Yuan Dynasty, that ruled all much of East Asia, for almost a century (1271-1368). He requested that the Polos secure him some holy oil and to bring a message of goodwill from him to the Pope. The two Venetians eventually made their way to Venice, and here Marco met his father for the first time in years. He accompanied the two older men back to Asia and traversed the Silk Road and he vividly describes the dangers on this route, including bandits, deserts and dust storms.

Upon his arrival in China, he met Kublai Khan and became a valued member of his court, partly because of his skill with languages.[3] Polo even carried out administrative duties for the Khan and as a result, he visited many areas of China. He traveled throughout the domains of the Mongols in East Asia. He also visited Tibet, Burma and even sailed on the South China Sea. Marco met many members of the Mongol and Chinese elite and visited many cities.

The Khan was reluctant to let the Venetians to return home, for reasons unknown. The Europeans knew that they needed the protection of the Khan and that if he suddenly died or was deposed they could be killed. Sometime in 1293, the Mongol ruler of the Ilkhanate Empire in Persia contracted a marriage alliance with Kublai Khan.

The Emperor of China agreed and sent one of his daughters or a niece to Persia, to become the wife of the Mongol ruler.[4] The Polos used this occasion to secure permission to leave the court of the Great Khan, and they traveled to with the bride and her retinue. They took the sea route, and Marco observed many islands and harbors, in modern Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and the Persian Gulf. The Polos barely survived the perilous journey, and after arriving in Persia, they made their way to the Byzantine Empire and found a passage to Venice.

Omissions and exaggerations

A portrait of Kublai Khan

The Travels of Marco Polo has always divided audiences. Many have treated the book as a work of fiction. There are those who believe that it does give a flawed account of East Asia. Those who are skeptical of the narrative point to the many omissions [5]. This has led some to suggest that he only visited the Chinese capital, or only repeated stories he heard from others.

There is, in fact, no mention of the Great Wall of China, which traverses a large part of the north of that vast country. Then while he makes references to many place names, modern scholars have not been able to identify them. Then he failed to mention many customs of the Chinese and Mongols, that would have seemed novel and noteworthy to a European traveler, such as footbinding.[6]

Then there have been many who accused the Venetian of fabricating some of his adventures. Some of his tales do verge on the fabulous and there are obvious embellishments. There are certainly omissions in the account of Polo, and this is something that is not unexpected. He did not actually write the book, he only dictated it to Rustichello.

Moreover, Marco may have forgotten some facts, he was often recalling things that happened almost 20 years earlier. Marco Polo has become synonymous with many down the centuries as a great exaggerator.[7] In particular, he was accused of exaggeration and even outright lies when he recounted the sexual practices of single Tibetan women. However, anthropologists in the twentieth century confirmed Marco’s claims. There are some who dispute the fact that the Venetians could have become so close to the great Mongol leader Kublai Khan.[8] However, the Yuan Dynasty often employed foreigners in China in the government because they did not trust the native Han Chinese and this increases the likelihood, that Marco was actually close to the Khan.

Facts in his narratives

Some scholars pointed out that there are many proven historical facts in his narrative. He gave a very accurate account of the Mongol system of administration and their rule. Polo also accurately described Chinese social norms and practices at the time. He also recounted quite correctly the prosperity and advanced technology of the Chinese state and its many cities.[9]

Some of his observations have been proven to be correct by archaeologists. For example, the Italian observed that there were many Nestorian Churches in Central China and the remains of these have been found in recent decades. Persian documentary sources have confirmed the story of the Mongol princess being sent to Persia to marry the Ilkhanate ruler.

Moreover, the Venetian was able to observe accurately the technologies of the Chinese, especially naval technology. It is believed that he shared these when he returned home to Venice. In general, many of his descriptions of the geography of China and East Asia was generally accurate and so too is his description of the Northern Silk Road. Evidence that he knew China very well can be seen in his accurate accounts of paper currency and taxation. [10]

There is a wealth of details that would confirm that the Polo visited China and was familiar with Yuan society and its economy. There is also evidence that his descriptions of his travels outside China were also on the whole accurate. The Italian also gave a good description of Hindu customs in India, and the spices of South-East Asia. However, it is probably safe to assume that Marco did not always fully understand what he had seen. [11]

Rustichello and the travels of Marco Polo

Many believed that Rustichello embellished the travelogue of the Venetian and his adventures. He was a writer who specialized in Romances and fabulous tales and was best known for his popular stories on King Arthur and Camelot. The Travels of Marco Polo has many of the stylistic characteristics of the Pisan writer’s earlier works. There are some references to marvels and fabulous stories in the narrative of the Italian. There are notorious descriptions in the book of men with the heads of dogs.

Then there is the historically inaccurate story of a great Christian ruler in Asia, who was called Prester John. In some passages of the narrative, there is a blend of true facts and fabrications. For example, when the Italian, describes the Indonesian Island of Sumatra, he stated correctly, that there were cannibals on the island, but he also says that there were men with tails to be found here. It seems likely that Rustichello either encouraged the Venetian to exaggerate somethings or to make things up.[12] The author appears to have spiced up some of Polo's adventures to make his book more appealing.

The Pisan writer also added material from his own writings, to make the work more appealing to the general audience. It was also expected, at the time that a work of travel literature would have fabulous stories and reports of marvels. The more fabulous stories in the travelogue have done much to undermine the credibility of the account of Marco Polo.[13]


During his lifetime and since many people believed that Marco had made his journey to China up and that he was a liar. As he lay on his deathbed, a Dominican friary implored the Venetian to admit that he had lied in his book and to repent, so that he would die sinless. The proud merchant refused and said he had only told the truth and that he had not related half of what he had witnessed. In general, the Venetian had given a faithful account of what he saw on his travels on the Silk Road, China, and Asia. The book about his travel has enough facts that have confirmed by other sources and archaeology to make his story credible.

It does appear that he traveled extensively in China and served the great Khan. Much of what is recorded in the 14th-century narrative is accurate and therefore, it has some historical value. However, it cannot be denied that there are many fabulous and incredible stories in the book. These stories may have been a result of the Pisan author who recorded the stories and his desire to make the work a success. Marco Polo’s records of his travels and adventures are in general authentic and somewhat reliable, however, they need to be read with care because of some fabrications, exaggerations, and omissions.

Further Reading

Polo, Marco. The Travels of Marco Polo. No. 306 (London, JM Dent & Sons, 1918).

Tucci, Giuseppe. "Marco Polo." East and West 5, no. 1 (1954): 5-14.

Zhou, Gang. "Small Talk: A New Reading of Marco Polo's Il milione." MLN 124, no. 1 (2009): 1-22.


  1. Burgan, Michael. Marco Polo: Marco Polo and the silk road to China (London, Capstone, 2002), p. 13
  2. Burgan, p 117
  3. Tulk, John. Marco Polo and the encounter of East and West. (Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 2008), p 119
  4. Tulk, p 113
  5. Wood, Frances. "Did Marco Polo Go to China?." Asian Affairs 27, no. 3 (1996): 296-304
  6. Wood, p 298
  7. Haeger, John W. "Marco Polo in China? Problems with internal evidence." Bulletin of Sung and Yüan Studies 14 (1978): 22-30
  8. Wood, p. 298
  9. Vogel, Hans Ulrich. Marco Polo was in China: new evidence from currencies, salt production, and revenues (Netherlands, Brill, 2012), p 67
  10. Vogel, p 115
  11. Vogel, p 189
  12. de Rachewiltz, Igor. "F. Wood's did Marco Polo go to China? A critical appraisal." (ANU Research Publications, 2002), p. 4
  13. Jacoby, David. "Marco Polo, his close relatives, and his travel account: Some new insights." Mediterranean Historical Review 21, no. 2 (2006): 193-218