Hello everyone! Today’s post will be on the first episode of the Netflix show Marco Polo, released in 2014. My personal opinion on this show was that it was a promising historical drama derailed by numerous and wholly unnecessary graphic scenes; however, for the sake of this review, that is neither here nor there. In terms of historical accuracy, the show was significantly more accurate than expected, with some caveats. The first is that nearly the only source on the life of the historical Marco Polo is his own book, Il Miliones, which he published upon his return; the second is that this book does not relate his life in great detail, giving the creators of the show significant leeway with their interpretation of events. In many ways, this makes Marco Polo the perfect historical drama from the perspective of television producers; they are permitted to tell a compelling historical story without having to worry too much about getting the details right.
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First, a brief outline of what it appears the show has done right, keeping in mind that I have only watched the first episode so far. The route taken by the Polo family in the show appears to have been accurate, though admittedly few details were provided in the show in this respect (see this map for the route they are believed to have taken historically). Secondly, the ages of the characters involved are just about right, though Marco may have been a little old in the show when his father returned to Venice (he was supposed to be 14 or 15 historically and appeared closer to 20 in the show). Thirdly, the slim details of interactions between Kublai Khan and Marco are basically correct as well; Kublai Khan did indeed enjoy the company of Marco due to his qualities as a conversationalist and storyteller, as depicted in the show, and he did wish him to travel his Empire and see what he could learn.[2[ Finally, the siege of Xiangyang which makes up the main storyline of this episode has been placed in the right place chronologically. However, there are some inaccuracies present in the show, despite the promising beginning.
For one, Marco was not abandoned by his father and uncle to a life of servitude in the Mongol court so that they could go set up trade routes along the Silk Road; instead, historically, all three remained in the Mongol court before eventually returning in 1292. This is a fairly major departure from historical accuracy, and was likely written in to make Marco’s personal storyline more dramatic without having to explain where the remainder of his family was the entire time (the show, after all, is called Marco Polo, not Niccolo Polo or The Polo Family). The majority of the other doubtful scenes are, I suspect, products of the spotty historical record surrounding Polo; while it is entirely possible that the (currently developing) relationship between Polo and a (as-yet unnamed) woman at the court of the Khan is historical, it has not made its way into the historical record if so.
Overall, this show is surprisingly accurate; while it does deviate from the historical record in one important aspect, and while as always I do not feel that this deviation was strictly necessary for the story, it is understandable why it was written in. Other than this flaw, and the inventions of writers left free to improve on the historical record, reasonable accuracy has been attained. What we do know of the Khan, his family, and other aspects of life at the court seems to have been replicated fairly faithfully; the issue is that Polo left us very little. If sources can be dug up, my current plan is to do a second post on the topic of this episode using sources from early Mongol China itself, to get both viewpoints on the topic. I hope you all enjoyed this post, and have a wonderful day.
1 Encyclopedia Britannica. “Marco Polo.” Last modified February 23, 2016.
2 The University of Utah. “Marco Polo.” n.d.
3 Encyclopedia Britannica. “China: China Under the Mongols.” Last modified December 28, 2015.
4 The University of Utah. “Marco Polo.” n.d.