Marco “Millioni” Polo

Did he actually bring back pasta and gunpowder from China? No, but he possibly coined the term “Millionaire.”

Marco Polo (1254-1324), as imagined by an unknown artist, depicting him dressed in the Mongolian Tatar style of the 13th Century.

Long presumed dead, the Polos returned home to Venice quite unceremoniously in 1295, a year after the death of Mongol Emperor Kublai Khan to whom they had been indentured. After 26 years abroad in the most foreign of territories, Marco, his uncle, and his father had not only aged but developed a certain twang in their accent, broke their Italian, and donned the fashion of Mongol dress. They each reputedly wore a long, shabby coat made of rough, coarse fabric, dirtied by a long overland journey. They were unrecognizable. No one know who they were. Claims that they were the merchant Polos were met with disbelief.

               Whether folklore, fact, or the corruption of a truth passed on by oral tradition, this is how the story goes.

               The Polos, upon establishing themselves in their family home, invited guests to a feast. The three men came out richly dressed in crimson robes. With the serving of each course of that evening’s meal, they would exit and return dressed differently and as richly as before. This had been a custom of Mongol nobility in Asia during their time. Once the eating was done and the evening near its close, the Polos finally brought out those shabby, brown overcoats they had worn when they first arrived home. These, in front of their guests, they cut up with sharp blades, slicing open every seam to reveal in every pocket, flap, and fold an assortment of the grandest gems and rarest jewels a human could possess—from diamonds and rubies to emeralds and carbuncles, sapphires and jewels galore. With this richness and the stories that they were told, the guests finally became convinced that these men were the Polos of yore.

               To protect the wealth they had garnered in Kublai Khan’s realm, which amounted to 10 to 15 million gold coins according to one source, they had to secure means of transporting it safely, secretly, and conveniently. So, they devised this inconspicuous way by converting the coins to high value jewels and precious stones, which they could carry on their bodies at all times without running the risk of being robbed or killed.

               It was an applied use of the term, “millions,” that Marco purveyed upon the Venetians, not gunpowder and pasta. When recounting his adventures, which did involve a catalog of such goods, he used the word “millioni” to describe the amount of wealth he had handled as a member of Kublai’s court. So, by the repeated use of this term (and his actual wealth), he became known as Marco “Millioni.” essentially coining the term, “millionaire.”

               There is another version of this story, but suffice it to say. . . well, I can tell it here, briefly. It begins the same: the three Polos returned home dressed in those shabby, rough overcoats. One of their wives, then, after the signores had settled in, gave away one of these coats to a poor beggar man. Well, the respective Polo went to the Bridge of Rialto and kept there for days with some odd antic of spinning a little wheel constantly so that people assumed him mad. In this way, he became quite the attraction among the Venetians, who thronged about him to witness the curiosity. Whenever questioned, he would mutter, “He’ll come if God pleases.” Soonafter, he saw the poor beggar man approach as a part of the crowd and then traded with him to get his coat back. He then revealed to the town all the gems and jewels he had stashed inside of it and thus revealed himself to be, not mad, but a millionaire – for there were over a million ducats worth of treasured stones laden in the lining of that old, dirty, brown robe.

               So, still the same in the end, the nickname persisted. That through variations of this story, the same thread exists – that the Polos brought back their money-converted-into-gems hidden in shabby overcoats – gives credence to the tale. You can find remnants of this truth in the Corte del Milion, Venice, Italy, a tourist destination popularly considered the old home of the Polo estate.

Marco Polo, Mosaic
Marco Polo in Mosaic, 1867

Categories: Medieval

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