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(with Rustichello of Pisa)
(An Italian explorer treks fearlessly into the unknown East, and discovers astonishing cultures and kingdoms no European had ever seen).
Marco Polo journeying to the East in the time of the Pax Mongolica, from the 1375 Catalan Atlas, housed at the National Library of France.
We are fortunate that Marco Polo lived long enough and expended the energy to record the greatest travels ever performed by any man to his time and for very long afterwards. He dictated– apparently from memory– his adventures to a romance-writer Rustichello of Pisa while they were prisoners of war in Genoa. No repetitive or trivial diarizing here—this is a very entertaining work, often fascinating and at times hilarious. I am struck, as Polo was, by the variety of customs observed in the many areas through which he trekked. I am also intrigued by the amount of wealth those in power were able to amass; such wealth that Kublai Khan, for the prime example, could romp in several sumptuous palaces with manicured grounds and scenic paths like those of the richest modern European monarch. It surely seems that the book’s two repeated claims may well be true: that Marco Polo had traveled further and knew more of the world than any other man who had ever lived; and that the Mongol empire under Kublai Khan was the largest empire in subjects and geographical area ever to have existed.
Pliny the Younger
(A wealthy lawyer reveals his personality and attitudes, and the way of life in Imperial Rome.)
Crop of Pliny the Younger and his Mother at Misenum, 79 AD, by Angelica Kauffmann (1785). Here Pliny dictates his most famous letter as he and his mother observe the eruption of Vesuvius. Courtesy of the Princeton Art Museum.
Many of us are acquainted with, or at least aware of, a certain species of lawyer, politician, or businessman. At first we notice the more grating aspects of his personality. He is near the top of his game, and can barely see beyond his own prosperity. He knows a whole lot of people, many of whom are famous, and somehow he reminds us of this in nearly every conversation. He loves to talk of his success stories, his valuable properties, praise he has received, and difficult decisions or tight places from which he has emerged victorious. He is sensible of the fact that his reputation is what keeps him successful, and he has become entrained on reputation to such an extent that the development of it is unabashedly the single guiding force in his life, the basis upon which he makes all significant choices. Maybe this is true for all of us to some extent, but what our bold tycoon doesn’t often realize that so ardently exhibiting a concern for reputation can actually harm your reputation.