ROBERT W. BROCKWAYTHE ROOTS OF NEW AGE
CHAPTER FOUR: THE CLASSICAL AGE
The Origins of the Western Esoteric Tradition
Most historians of religion concur that the Western tradition of esotericism is at least to some degree of Gnostic origins. Because the latter was itself of Hellenistic derivation, we will say a few words about this highly complex and cosmopolitan civilization. The term “Hellenistic” refers to the expansion of Greek Civilization following the conquests of Alexander the Great during the Fourth Century B.C.E. Although Alexander was Macedonian, as was his empire, that part of the Balkans had been completely Hellenized by his time. His tutor was the philosopher Aristotle.
Alexander conquered his vast empire in 330 B.C.E. by shattering the Persian armies. At the time, the Persian kings ruled what is now Egypt, Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, Turkey, Iraq, and Iran.
Alexander died in Babylon in 323 B.C.E. He had no legitimate heir, and after his death, his younger commanders fought the Battle of Issus which resulted in the division of his empire among them. Lysimachus held Asia Minor (Turkey) and Thrace; Cassandra, Macedonia, the homeland; and Ptolemy, Egypt, Phoenicia, and Palestine. The latter is the part of the Alexandrian legacy which is of greatest importance to us here because esotericism arose in the city of Alexandria, Egypt, out of a fusion of late Egyptian, Greek, and Jewish elements.
The Hellenistic Age (323-30 B.C.E.)
Historians label the cultural era between the death of Alexander and that of Cleopatra, last queen of Egypt, as the Hellenistic Age. This must be clearly distinguished from the Hellenic, which refers only to Greece from the earliest written records around the eighth century B.C.E. to the death of Alexander in 323 B.C.E. Politically speaking, the Hellenic Era was characterized by the atrophy of the city states. Greek cities became dominated increasingly by wealthy and educated elites; democracy vanished, not to appear again until the eighteenth century with the American and French Revolutions. The cities fell under the rule of monarchs, or else formed leagues. Athens, for instance, lost its political autonomy after 262 B.C.E,. though it continued to hold importance as a cultural, philosophical, and academic center.
Alexander and his successors founded Greek cities, petty principalities subject to imperial overlord, throughout Southwest Asia, from Asia Minor to what is now Afghanistan. These cities were prosperous, distinguished by public buildings and famous for the splendor of the games, pageants, and other public pastimes that were intended to divert the masses and thus preserve the power of the ruling elites.
That the Hellenistic realms were highly prosperous is significant. Esotericism has tended to flourish most among affluent members of materialistic