The Facts Based on History
Almost nothing is known about the childhood of Marco Polo until he was fifteen years old, excepting that he probably spent part of his childhood in Venice.Meanwhile, Marco Polo’s mother died, and an aunt and uncle raised him.He received a good education, learning mercantile subjects including foreign currency, appraising, and the handling of cargo ships;he learned little or no Latin. His father later married with Floradise Polo (née Trevisan).
His father Niccolò and uncle Maffeo’s journeys brought them into present-day China, where they joined a diplomatic mission to the court of Kublai Khan, the Mongol leader whose grandfather, Genghis Khan, had conquered Northeast Asia. In 1269, the two men returned to Venice, and immediately started making plans for their return to Khan’s court. During their stay with the leader, Khan had expressed his interest in Christianity and asked the Polo brothers to visit again with 100 priests and a collection of holy water.
Khan’s Empire, the largest the world had ever seen, was largely a mystery to those living within the borders of the Holy Roman Empire. A sophisticated culture outside the reaches of the Vatican seemed unfathomable, and yet, that’s exactly what the Polo brothers described to confounded Venetians when they arrived home.
In 1269, Niccolò and Maffeo returned to their families in Venice, meeting young Marco for the first time.Upon return, his father and uncle learned that the pope, Clement IV, had recently died. Niccolò and Maffeo remained in Venice anticipating the election of a new pope, but in 1271, after two years of waiting, they departed with Marco for the Mongol court. In Acre (now ʿAkko, Israel) the papal legate, Teobaldo of Piacenza, gave them letters for the Mongol emperor. The Polos had been on the road for only a few days when they heard that their friend Teobaldo had been elected pope as Gregory X. Returning to Acre, they were given proper credentials, and two friars were assigned to accompany them, though they abandoned the Polos shortly after the expedition resumed.
Journey to China
In 1271, Niccolo and Maffeo Polo set out for Asia again, but this time they brought young Marco with them. Unable to recruit the 100 priests that Khan had requested, they left with only two, who, after getting a taste of the hard journey ahead of them, soon turned back for home. The Polos’ journey took place on land, and they were forced to cut through challenging and sometimes harsh territory. But through it all, Marco reveled in the adventure. His later memory for the places and cultures he witnessed was remarkable and exceptionally accurate.
As they made their way through the Middle East, Marco absorbed its sights and smells. His account of the Orient, especially, provided the western world with its first clear picture of the East’s geography and ethnic customs. Hardships, of course, came his way. In what is now Afghanistan, Marco was forced to retreat to the mountains in order to recoup from an illness he’d contracted. Crossing the Gobi desert, meanwhile, proved long and, at times, arduous. “This desert is reported to be so long that it would take a year to go from end to end,” Marco later wrote. “And at the narrowest point it takes a month to cross it. It consists entirely of mountains and sands and valleys. There is nothing at all to eat.”
In one instance during their trip, the Polos joined a caravan of travelling merchants whom they crossed paths with. Unfortunately, the party was soon attacked by bandits, who used the cover of a sandstorm to ambush them. The Polos managed to fight and escape through a nearby town, but many members of the caravan were killed or enslaved.
Finally, after four years of travel, the Polos reached China and Kublai Khan, who was staying at his summer palace known as Xanadu, a grand marble architectural wonder that dazzled young Marco.
In the Series:
The young Marco Polo appeared to know his father upon their return in Venice as shown in Episode 1, “The Wayfarer.” The bandits’ attack was also told in the series. From there the series took off from history as it told Marco’s life inside Kublai Khan’s court, attributing Marco’s 23-year absence in Venice on the fact that Marco was sold by his father to the Khan upon failing to bring the appropriate 100 priests requested by the Khan. And so the story of Marco Polo and the Khan’s court begins.
In Episode2, Jia Sidao was introduced. He was a chancellor during the late Song dynasty of China, the brother of a concubine of Emperor Lizong, a subsequent relationship of special favor of Emperor Duzong, and with roles in the Mongol-Song Battle of Xiangyang and an unpopular land nationalization program in the 1260s. In history, Sidao was assassinated by a court-designated sheriff charged with his custody after his court failures, but here in the series, he was made the ultimate antagonist, the main enemy of the Khan as he strive to conquer all of China.
The conflict between the Khan and his brother was also portrayed here. When Kublai returned for an election in 1260, rival factions could not agree, and elected both claimants, Kublai and his brother, Ariq Böke, to the throne, resulting in the Toluid Civil War that fragmented the Mongol Empire. Ariq Böke was supported by the traditionalists of the Mongol Empire, while his brother Kublai was supported by the senior princes of North China and Manchuria.
Kököchin, a princess from the Yuan dynasty in China, belonging to the Mongol tribe of the Bayaut was made the love interest of Marco Polo in the series. In history, in 1291, she was betrothed to the Ilkhanate khan Arghun by the Mongol Great Khan Kublai. This followed a request by Arghun to his grand-uncle Kublai, following the loss of his favourite wife Bolgana. Arghun asked Kublai Khan to send him a relative of his dead wife, and Kublai chose the 17-year-old Kökötchin. The only time Marco had a long time with the princess was when Kublai, from his capital of Khanbaliq (the Khan’s city, modern day Beijing) entrusted Marco Polo with his last duty, to escort princess Kökechin to Arghun.
The Dumbledore of this series was the Hundred Eyes. In history, he is Bayan of the Baarin (1236 – January 11, 1295), a Mongol general. He was also known as Bayan or to Marco Polo, as “Bayan Hundred Eyes.” Probably from a misunderstanding of Chinese “pinyin”. He commanded the army of Kublai Khan against the Song dynasty (960–1279) of China, ushering in the Song collapse and the conquest of South China by the Yuan dynasty.
In the series, during the Fall of the Song Dynasty, it portrayed the Polo’s claim that he provided the Mongols with technical advice on building mangonels during the Siege of Xiangyang, a claim that cannot possibly be true as the siege was over before Polo had arrived in China. The Mongol army that besieged Xiangyang had several Chinese military engineers attached to it who would have known how to build catapults the equal of anything to be found in Europe.