Italian trader and explorer (c. 1254 to 1323). While Marco was a teenager in Venice, his father and uncle returned from a journey to China where they had become servants of Kublai Khan. The Khan had sent them back to Europe to bring Christian missionaries, but the recent death of the Pope meant the brothers had to wait before official papal legates could be dispatched. Two years later, the brothers set off for the East again, accompanied by Marco and papers explaining their long absence. Two other priests were sent with them, but they soon became frightened and returned to Italy.

After over three years of travel, the Polos arrived at Shang Tu, the Khan's summer residence. They were received with honor, and the Khan was impressed with Marco, adding him to his personal staff. Over the next 17 years, Marco traveled all over the empire on errands, as far as Vietnam, Java, India, Ethiopia, and Persia, and he gained Kublai's favor by taking notes and telling stories about his travels. He may also have been made the administrator of Yangchow, one of the Khan's provinces.

When the Polos finally returned to Venice in 1295, no one believed they were who they claimed--everyone believed they had died long ago. The family had to put on a lavish banquet and show off all the wealth they had acquired in the East before they were accepted as the Polos returned.

Venice was at war with Genoa, and Marco was captured at sea and thrown into a Genoese prison. There, his wild stories made him popular with the other prisoners and the guards. Someone suggested he write his stories down, so he collaborated with another prisoner, Rustichello, a professional writer. "The Description of the World" was completed in 1298, one year before the war ended and Marco was released. He returned to Venice as a trader, and when his father and uncle died, he inherited most of the family's wealth. He continued trading and telling stories about his time in the East for the rest of his life, though he eventually lost most of his wealth.

When he was alive, Marco's stories were not actually believed, but people liked him anyway, partly because of his great charisma and partly because everyone appreciated his storytelling skill. After his death and after other explorers traveled to China, his stories were believed more. However, some modern scholars believe that he never ventured any further east than the Black Sea--really, no one knows for sure...

Research from GURPS Who's Who 2, compiled by Phil Masters, "Marco Polo" by Brian C. Smithson, pp. 36-37.