That which does not kill us makes us stronger. — Nietzsche

Travels and Adventures of Marco Polo - George Towle




Marco Polo Goes to the Wars

At the time of his return to Venice, Marco Polo was forty-one years of age, and in the full vigor and prime of life, His wanderings and rough career had given him a powerful frame, and great bodily strength, and had implanted in him a taste for adventure and action which ill-suited him for the tranquillity of city and commercial life.

No sooner had his identity been fully recognized, than all Venice hastened to do him, as well as his father and uncle, all honor. Every day their house was thronged by nobles and great ladies, by hosts of old friends and new, anxious to pay their homage to the heroic travellers. An office of high rank was conferred on the elder Maffeo; Nicolo became one of the chief gentlemen of the doge's court, and Marco was overwhelmed with favors, honors and, attentions by the ruler of Venice. Fetes were given in celebration of their happy return; and it was with difficulty that they could escape the profuse attentions which, were showered upon them.

Marco, became a special hero and favorite with the young Venetians who vied with each other in seeking his friendship an companionship. Scarcely a day passed that Marco did not receive, at his father's house, a company of young men who sat eagerly listening to the wonderful stories he had to tell them of the East. They plied him with a multitude of questions about Cathay and the great khan, and he pleased them all by the willingness and pleasant manner with which he replied to every one.

It happened that Marco, in describing the magnificence of Kublai Khan's palace and court, unconsciously gave the name to his house by which it was long after known. He constantly repeated the word "millions" in speaking of the khan's treasure and possessions. The khan had, he said, millions of subjects, millions of jewels, and so on; so that the young men laughingly called him "Messer Marco Millions;'' and from this the Polo house became known as the "Court of the Millions."

When the excitement and rejoicings attending their return home were over, Marco looked about him to see at he could do with himself. After such a life as his had been, he did not look forward with pleasure to a career of mere indolence. Amply rich by reason of the treasures he had brought with him from Cathay, he was not compelled to contemplate entering into business. He desired some active, and if possible, adventurous occupation. Meanwhile, he now bethought him of a desire he had long had, to take to himself a life partner, in the person of some young and noble-born Venetian lady. Before leaving Cathay, he had told his father that, on their return, he would marry, and thus perpetuate the name and wealth of the family; and now seemed a favorable time to put this design into execution.

He began to look about him with a view to selecting some fair companion. There were many beauties at the Venetian court, and a man of Marco's handsome, manly appearance and great fame might be sure of a favorable hearing, to whichever of them he chose to address himself.

But before he had been able to make his choice amid such a bevy of pretty women, an event occurred which drew him away, for a time, from all thoughts of marriage. During the year before the return of the Polos from the East, a fierce war had broken out between Venice and her ancient and bitter rival, the city of Genoa. These two cities, both boasting of a most thriving commerce, and both powerful and warlike, had long contested with each other the supremacy of the seas. Nearly a hundred years before, Venice had performed the feat of capturing Constantinople, and had thus won the alliance of the Eastern Roman Empire. After that period, both Venice and Genoa had established many colonies in the Levant, on the shores of Asia Minor and Greece, and on the islands that dotted the Aegean. Fifty years after the taking of Constantinople by Venice, a fierce war had broken out between her and Genoa, in Asia Minor, resulting in a brilliant triumph by Venice. Then came a time when Genoa in turn was victorious, and drove her rival from many places which Venice bad taken from her.

The new war, begun in 1294, when Marco and his party were sailing on the Indian ocean, homeward bound, had at first been favorable to the Genoese, who had defeated the Venetians in a great sea battle off the coast of Palestine, taking almost their entire fleet; and this war was still going on when Marco returned to Venice.

News had now come that the Genoese had fitted out a formidable squadron, and were resolved to attack the proud old city of Venice itself. They had won so many victories, that they arrogantly believed that, by a great effort, they might capture even the famed capital of the doges. The news of this approaching peril filled Venice with excitement and fury. The haughty Venetians were beside themselves with rage to think that so audacious a plan should be thought of by their ancient foes and every preparation was made in all haste to give them a hot reception.

The doge called upon every Venetian cavalier to aid in saving their beloved city from a crowning disgrace and his call was promptly obeyed by all the flower of Venetian chivalry. Marco Polo's heart was fired with patriotic ardor among the foremost. He saw with delight a chance to return to a life of action and peril, and to win new laurels by his prowess and he was one of the first to offer his sword and his life to the doge. No sooner had he done so, than he was appointed to the command of one of the galleys in the fleet which was being rapidly prepared to resist that of the Genoese.

The enemy's expedition, comprising nearly one hundred war galleys, was commanded by a famous admiral, named Doria. Soon the news reached Venice that this fleet had assembled at the Gulf of Spezia, near Genoa, and had thence set sail around the Italian peninsula for the Adriatic. Then couriers arrived with the startling intelligence that the Genoese galleys were actually in the Adriatic, and were rapidly approaching Venice itself.

But at this moment the elements served as the ally of the Venetians. A furious storm of wind and rain broke over the Genoese fleet. Doria hastened to put into a port on the Dalmatian coast, with such galleys as he could gather; while some sixteen of his galleys were swept far away from him by the tempest.

When the storm abated, Doria was forced to pursue his design with about eighty galleys After ravaging the Dalmatian coast, the greater part of which belonged to Venice, the Genoese advanced to the island of Curzola, the same that the ancient Greeks called Corcya. Here he put in at the harbor of the chief town, which, as it belonged to the Venetians, Doria ruthlessly sacked and burned. All these events were learned by the doge soon after they had occurred and now a Venetian fleet had been collected, comprising ninety-five galleys, and put under the command of a veteran sea-warrior named Dandolo.

The Genoese fleet were riding confidently at anchor in the bay of Curzola, when, one hazy afternoon in early September, they perceived the Venetian galleys in close ranks, approaching from the southern side of the island. They came to anchor in sight of the Genoese, and the sun went down upon the two fleets confronting each other, and only waiting for the morning light to engage in a deadly conflict. Both sides were very sure of victory. After the night had fallen Doria, the Genoese admiral, called a council of war, and put the question whether they should attack the enemy in the morning, or stand on the defensive and await his assault where they were. It was decided to attack. At the same time the Venetian commander, Dandolo, was so confident of beating the Genoese, that he was sending out boats to watch that the Genoese did not sneak away under cover of night. Marco Polo was in command of his galley in Dandolo's fleet; and no warrior in it was more passionately eager than he for the fray.

The sun rose bright and clear on the next morning, which was a Sunday. From earliest dawn the greatest activity prevailed in both fleets. The long galleys, with their multitudes of slim oars, their many flags flying and fluttering in the fresh breeze, their warriors, with shield, sword and lance, crowded not only on the deck, but on platforms raised above it, and in basket-like boxes hoisted nearly to the tops of the masts, their trumpeters blowing martial blasts in raised enclosures near the stern, their captains shouting hoarsely the words of command, presented a gay and bold appearance as they advanced to meet the foe. Marco's galley was one of the largest and best manned in Dandolo's fleet; and as the vessels sped forward, was one of those which led the way.

The Genoese had resolved to make the attack; but to their surprise, the Venetians appeared coming down upon them the first thing in the morning. The Venetian galleys had full sail on, for the wind was in their favor. On the other hand, as they were proceeding eastward, the sun shone directly in their eyes. The air was filled with the noise of their trumpets and the shouting of the warriors and there was a moment when Doria, seeing his enemy's brave array and bold advance, trembled lest they should overcome

The first shock of the battle seemed to give reason to his fears. The Venetian galleys came on with an impetuous rush, and plunged pellmell among those of Genoa. Before Doria was able to make a single stroke, no less than ten of his galleys had been captured and sunk, Marco Polo having been one of the capturers. But the Venetians had advanced too rapidly, as the event soon showed for scarcely had Dandolo heard with joy of the taking of the ten galleys, when word came to him that several of his own boats had run aground. This was a great misfortune. It was soon to be followed by the capture of one of his largest galleys, the soldiers in which were thrown by the Genoese into the water and the galley itself was turned against Dandolo. The tide of battle, raging fiercely, had seemed at first to run decidedly in favor of the Venetians. But now it turned, The Venetians became confused and desperate by these mishaps while the Genoese were filled with new hope and courage. Nevertheless, the conflict went on desperately for hours, victory inclining now to one side and now to the other.

Marco Polo in Battle
MARCO POLO IN BATTLE


Marco, with his a galley, fought like a lion. He stood on a platform above his men, and kept encouraging them by his shouts and his own example. Every now and then, fired by the excitement of the fray, he would descend from the platform, and drawing his long sword, would rush into the midst, and rain sturdy blows upon the heads of the Genoese in reach of it.

The contest had gone on till the sun was far in the west, when the Genoese fleet, rallying together for a desperate rush, formed a close rank of galleys, and plunged straight down upon Dandolo's boats. So impetuous was the assault that it scattered the Venetian galleys right and left. At this critical moment, an event occurred that completed the defeat and destruction of the brave Venetians. Sixteen Genoese galleys, which had been driven away from the rest of the Genoese fleet, in the storm which had assailed it on entering the Adriatic, now came up, and fell upon the Venetian vessels with crushing force.

This decided the battle. Venetian galleys, one after another, were sunk or captured, the men resisting heroically to the last until nearly every galley which still floated fell into the hands of the victorious Genoese. A few escaped, and made all sail for Venice but among the captive vessels was the admiral's ship, in which Dandolo himself was taken.

One of the very last galleys to yield to the conqueror was that of Marco Polo. He contested every inch with the foe, and it was only after his masts had gone, his men had dreadfully thinned out, and all the other Venetian galleys around him had fallen into the hands of the Genoese, that he sadly surrendered and shared the humiliating fate of his brave commander.

The prisoners were all taken into port, where they were forced to witness the exultant rejoicing of their enemies. The commanders of the captured galleys were confined in a house together, and Marco found himself in company with Dandolo. The Venetian admiral was overwhelmed with grief at his defeat. In spite of the entreaties of his guard and of Marco himself, Dandolo utterly refused to take any food; and one day, in utter despair, he threw himself down, violently struck his head against a bench, and thus killed himself. He preferred to die thus, rather than be carried a prisoner to hated Genoa.

Doria heard with grief of the violent death of his gallant enemy, and ordered that Dandolo's body should be embalmed and carried to Genoa, where a funeral worthy of his fame should be given him. Having rested his army and repaired his galleys, Doria, ordering his prisoners to be chained and put on board, set sail for his own city.

This was a dreary moment, indeed, for Marco; a sad ending to his ambition for military glory. Instead of returning home bearing the honors of his prowess, he was a captive, loaded with chains, and on the way to prison in a strange and hostile country. Here was a sorrowful termination to his plans of marriage, and his hope of sitting in the midst of a family of blooming children. Instead of his luxurious home in the Court of the Millions, a bare dark cell was destined to be his lot. But he bore up bravely in the midst of his misfortunes. His nature was so cheerful a one, that instead of brooding, he tried to encourage and enliven his fellow prisoners; and won the liking of the Genoese soldiers whose duty it was to guard and serve him.

In due time the victorious fleet reached Genoa, and was received with the wildest demonstrations of delight. The ships in the beautiful bay displayed their flags and banners; the great nobles vied with each other in paying honor to Doria; and a splendid funeral was awarded to the dead Venetian admiral. The prisoners, still in chains, were marched through the street, bounded on either side by stately palaces, and were jeered at by the multitude as they passed along. Finally, to Marco's great relief, they reached a massive and gloomy edifice, not far from the quays into which they were taken, and distributed in narrow cells.

For some time, at first, Marco feared that his captors had doomed him to all the horrors of solitary imprisonment. He was aghast at the idea of spending months, perhaps years, shut up in darkness and dampness, utterly alone, with no companion, however humble to share his solitude. He was greatly relieved, therefore, when one day after he had been in prison about a week, the governor of the jail entered his cell, followed by a grave, scholarly-looking man, to whom the governor introduced Marco as his future prison-mate.

As soon as the governor had retired, Marco rushed forward and grasped the new-comer by the hand, eagerly asking him who he was and whence he came.

"I am Rustician, a gentleman of Pisa," replied the stranger; "and was taken prisoner by the Genoese several years ago. Ever since, I have languished in one prison or another; but now; since such large numbers of you Venetians have been taken, the prisons of Genoa are full, and they are obliged to put two men in each cell. And who, pray, are you?"

Marco told the Pisan who he was, and gave him a full account of his wanderings; and speedily they found themselves fast friends.

The Pisan proved to a scholar and writer of rare accomplishments, and he, in turn, was delighted to find, in his fellow-prisoner, a man who had seen so much of a continent almost wholly unknown to Europeans. The companionship of Rustician, indeed, made Marco's prison life almost cheerful. They talked to each other by the hour, Marco listening to Rustician's learned conversation, and Rustician eagerly absorbing Marco's stories of the marvels of the East. Meanwhile, the severity of their prison life was gradually relaxed, until at last they were allowed comfortable couches to sleep on, and an abundance of palatable food at their daily meals.

The prison was a large one, and contained several hundred prisoners; these were for the most part Venetians who, like Marco, had been taken in the battle of Curzola. After a time, the prisoners were allowed to see and talk with each other at certain hours of the day a permission of which Marco eagerly availed himself. He found many of his friends among the prisoners, as well as a number of the men who had served on board his own galley. Among other privileges which were now allowed the captives, were those of having books and writing materials in their cells, and of writing to and receiving letters from their friends at home; and Marco took good care to send his father a full account of all that happened to him in prison.

But his chief pleasure was to talk with his roommate, the gentle and learned Rustician. They had speedily become close and loving friends and Rustician, as soon as they were allowed pen and ink, bethought him of a way to pass the weary hours, for which the world owes him a deep debt of gratitude. He proposed to Marco that he should sit down day after day, and relate, in due order, all his travels and what befell him in the East, describing the countries and peoples he had seen, and the many adventures which had happened to him; while Rustician himself, sitting at the little prison table, should carefully write off Marco's thrilling story. To this Marco readily consented and the next day the two captives set to work upon their new labor in good earnest.