First we need to discuss his name. Helico doesn’t seem to come from any specific source. However, it can be speculated that Helico is an combination of different root sources. Admittedly this is a stretch, but his name could have been a Greekized form of the Gaulish word for willow tree “Salico”. In Greek it’s helíke and in Welsh it’s helyg.
The theory is his name was Salico, but since Greek would’ve been the most likely language for Gauls and Etruscans to both speak it got morphed into Helico. Because the Latin equivalent is salix or that’s just how his name was recorded after the fact. Especially if it was recorded by Greeks. Another source talks about a man named Elico who fits the narrative set in place by Pliny the Elder but we’ll touch on that shortly.
Pliny the Elder (AD 23–79) was a Roman natural philosopher who was educated in Rome and came into contact with Celts during his military service in Germany and Gaul. He wrote the encyclopedic Naturalis Historia (The Natural History), which became an editorial model for encyclopedias. In this book, Pliny gives the account of Helico:
§ 12.2. “It is related that the Gauls, separated from us as they were by the Alps, which then formed an almost insurmountable bulwark, had, as their chief motive for invading Italy, its dried figs, its grapes, its oil, and its wine, samples of which had been brought back to them by Helico, a citizen of the Helvetii, who had been staying at Rome, to practice there as an artisan. We may offer some excuse, then, for them, when we know that they came in quest of these various productions, though at the price even of war.”
This account could line up with the Cimbrian War and the raids following the defeat of L. Cassius Longinus near Agendicum in 107 BC. There are additional Latin texts that further this claim about Helico.
This text refers to Helico as Salico (as we saw earlier) and says, “fario Salico huc refert quædam compofita, gaulia funt arbitrio ejus, gefim congregatio”. Which roughly translates as, “quite tyrannically Salico here, does it matter, a certain Compofita, Gauls are the control of its, gefis, O congregation” (according to Google Translate).
“The Kymry: Their Origin, History, and International Relations”
By Robert Owen, while the book is Welsh focused, does tell tell a story about a figure named, Elico. In this book, Elico is a Helvetian who is hired by a seemingly injured Etruscan to take goods back to the Helvetii to persuade them to invade Northern Italy. The motive was that The Etruscans were under threat by Rome.
It’s most likely with this Author that we cannot fully say that this is a solid source or not but I feel it was worth mentioning. There is another interesting factor to this we should consider. The vessel that was found in Mantua with “Eluveitie”, written on it from 300 BC, was written in Etruscan letters. It’s a very loose connection and probably unlikely but again I felt it was worth mentioning.
Now in the Roman perspective this was a villainous act but in the Gaulish perspective, Helico was a cultural hero. Bringing back craft skills he had learned from the Romans along with signs of wealth that was ripe for the taking in Italy. It’s hard to say if this event was an Etruscan ploy to bring in the Helvetii into conflict with Rome or if this was a precursor to the Cimbrian War.
But what can be said is that Helico’s cunning and clever actions was a major gain for The Helvetii. However, this most likely effected the events that led to the coming Helvetian War if Helico was real. Until major evidence is found that proves Helico’s existence, he will remain a somewhat legendary figure in history. Talked about and mentioned in texts but nothing to prove he was real.
If Helico is purely fictional he could be seen as a personification of how the Romans saw the Helvetii. Clever and willing to learn but ultimately deceitful and hungry for war even for dried grapes and wine. Helico is painted to show that no matter how civilized the Helvetii can be, at the end of the day they are still barbarians.
Regardless, Helico has earned his place in the Nemeton Eluêtion. A folk hero who’s actions, either historic or mythic, shows the tenacity of the Helvetii. To bring back new crafting skills and evidence of wealth and plunder to the Alps. Pliny the Elder has vilified Helico, and rightfully so, but Helico’s actions was all for the benefit and gain of his tribe. Helico is a villain of Rome for his betrayal but he is a Helvetii Hero for his contribution to the wealth and culture of the Helvetti.
Special thanks to Ûailogenos for his help with the research.