As has been said, the secret learning of the Egyptians in earliest times was distributed among the wise men of the world. That this learning was notable concerning the movements of heavenly bodies is witnessed by the Great Pyramid, which has endured through the ages as a visible proof. Moreover, there is a tradition, carefully preserved, that tells of the knowledge thus possessed by, and restricted to, the chosen few. Since the truth of the tradition is supported by ample evidence in one direction, it is not unreasonable to give it credence in other respects. From the nature of the case, it is impossible that anything should survive to render such other testimony positive, like that afforded in the case of the pyramid. But we may be sure that the priests and magicians of Egypt, in the earliest days, gained a very appreciable mastery of the art of fire. They became, doubtless, skilled in that phase of natural magic which was so intimately concerned in their control over the people. Such knowledge was always, of course, zealously guarded, just as were all the esoteric teachings of religion. The method of secrecy survived, to a greater or less extent, through the whole period of history. Thus, for example, even as late as the beginning of our Christian era, Christ explained that His parables contained hidden meanings, for the understanding of the disciples alone, while the apparent lesson in each story was sufficient for the vulgar. So, the possessors withheld from popular knowledge in ancient times their discoveries concerning the nature and activities of fire. The adepts soon acquired definite information as to many combustible substances, from which they could produce flames of extraordinary violence with an ease seemingly miraculous; and, too, they secured a fair control over color effects in fire.
By these means, they kept to themselves a vast advantage both in religious prestige and in magical practices.
It has been generally believed that the Chinese were the inventors and first exploiters of pyrotechny, the art of aerial fire. This belief is natural enough in view of the fact that the Chinese records of fireworks antedate any others. But it must be remembered that the primitive culture radiating from Egypt penetrated into the Celestial Kingdom, and the later Chinese developments had their actual source in such diffusion of knowledge.
It is possible that the secret learning was carried from the populous southern part of China toward India by way of the Bramahputra Basin, through Assam into Bengal, and thus to Calcutta and Benares. But it is quite probable that the Hindu adepts received their instructions directly from Egyptian sources, without any intermediary assistance on the part of the Chinese. It is worthy of note in this connection that, while the development of pyrotechny for purposes of spectacular display developed somewhat similarly in China and India, the Hindus employed the art also in contriving war weapons of a sort utterly unknown by their more peaceful neighbors.
Attention should be given also to the fact that, through long ages, China and India were practically alone in the cultivation of pyrotechny. The Egyptian culture passed, and, save for monuments in stone, the land of its birth no longer showed any least trace of the ancient learning. Only a few vestiges of it survived in China and India, through all the vicissitudes of changing dynasties.
These nations were never progressive. Oriental apathy has been consistently demonstrated in every succeeding epoch. The history of pyrotechny offers no exception. The Chinese people placidly amused itself during centuries with firecrackers; mandarins were entertained by spectacular effects of a more pretentious sort in colored fire; scenic displays were frequent at the courts of rajah and maharajah.
It was the power of Rome that brought a new energy and glory to the art of aerial fire. This was not due to any machinations of priests or sorcerers. It was caused directly by the enterprise of the race, which came to dominate the world, and sought and took to itself every variety of luxury and art - all that should make for fullness of life. Just as the Soman legions brought home Chinese silks, more precious than their weight in gold - so precious, indeed, that the Roman matrons raveled them out and wove them again in thinner fabrics - just as the returning conquerors bore with them treasures in jewels from India, so the expeditionary forces carried homeward with them from the Orient a new knowledge of the art of fire. This novel learning was seized on with eagerness for the entertainment of emperor and populace alike. Exhibitions of fireworks, which included set pieces, were given in the Circus as early as the reign of the Emperor Augustus, and afterward during the reigns of Carinus and Diocletian. One of the more elaborate displays so excited the admiration of a Latin poet that he composed verses in celebration of it. From the writings of the age we are informed that it was customary to use, for the more imposing effects, a framework that was movable and fitted with adjustable parts, by means of which variously colored fires might be set in motion.
The overthrow of the empire in the west put a definite end to the Roman development of pyrotechny. The interval of inactivity continued for nearly half a thousand years.
In the meantime, the single development of pyrotechny, concerning which we have any dependable record, was the Greek fire. Some account of this will be given in a separate chapter.
The Crusaders came into contact with the Greek fire, and by bitter experience gained an increased knowledge of combustibles, with which they returned to Europe. The introduction of gunpowder was the direct result, and, somewhat less directly, a new activity in the art of aerial fire. It would seem that something of the old Roman spirit revived in Italy, for pyrotechny there was especially cultivated. The Florentines particularly were alert and efficient in their pyrotechnic operations. Siena, too, acquired no small renown for complicated displays. Various feast days of the church were distinguished by vivid presentations in flame of some sacred story, appropriate to the saint it was desired to honor.