Was Marco Polo a Fraud?

In 1271, Marco Polo set sail for Asia, beginning a remarkable 24-year, 15,000 mile journey that led him all the way to China’s Mongol court. Scholars consider him one of history’s greatest explorers. But new evidence suggests otherwise. Was Marco Polo a conman?

The Travels of Marco Polo

In 1269 or 1270, Marco Polo’s father and uncle returned to Venice after a multi-year expedition that made them the first Europeans to meet Kublai Khan, the fifth Great Khan of China’s Mongol Empire. They proceeded to plan a new expedition back to China. In 1271, the expedition, which now included a young Marco Polo, set forth. After three and a half years, they finally reached the Mongol court. But Kublai Khan refused to let them leave. It wasn’t until 1295 that Marco Polo finally returned to Venice.

However, Venice was at war with Genoa and he subsequently imprisoned. While there, he dictated the story of his journey to a romance author named Rustichello da Pisa. The Travels of Marco Polo became a gigantic hit for the time and enshrined Marco’s place in history.

Was Marco Polo a Fraud?

Over the centuries however, the book has been called into question by numerous historians. Adding fuel to the fire, a team of Italian archaeologists recently pointed out inconsistencies in Polo’s descriptions of Kublai Khan’s two separate invasions of Japan.

“He confuses the two, mixing up details about the first expedition with those of the second. In his account of the first invasion, he describes the fleet leaving Korea and being hit by a typhoon before it reached the Japanese coast. But that happened in 1281 – is it really possible that a supposed eye witness could confuse events which were seven years apart?” ~ Professor Daniele Petrella, University of Naples

Also, Polo described ships with five masts while shipwrecks found off the coast of Japan had only three masts. He used Persian terms rather than local ones to describe places in China. And despite his claim to have worked in Kublai Khan’s court, his name does not exist in any surviving records from that court.

Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis

Professor Petrella believes that Marco Polo probably gathered stories about the Orient from other traders in the Black Sea. Since he never actually experienced the events in his book, mistakes were inevitable. Others are less skeptical. They point out that the discrepancies could be due to honest mistakes or perhaps, embellishments by Rustichello. Furthermore, it is difficult to pinpoint Marco Polo’s exact account since no authoritative version of The Travels exists. The book was originally copied by hand and adapted by other writers meaning that even early versions of it differ significantly.

Regardless, Marco Polo’s story is still important. His book inspired a generation of explorers to action, most notably Christopher Columbus. For that alone, he deserves to be remembered as one of the most important figures in the history of exploration.

Recent Comments

  • Stephen G. Haw
    January 21, 2013 - 3:47 am · Reply

    This issue has already been settled. You are completely wrong to suggest that Marco Polo was a fraud or a conman. Professor Petrella is NOT an expert on the history of the Mongol empire. He does not even seem to have read Marco Polo’s book, which only describes the second Mongol invasion of Japan – the first occurred before Marco reached China. What Marco says about the second invasion is generally correct.

    For more details, see the book “Marco Polo’s China”, by Stephen G. Haw, published by Routledge in 2006.

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