This weird statue–named Man with a Snake (to signify War) and soaring over Hősök tere (Heroes Square) on a stormy Budapest morning–set us to puzzling over chariots:

First of all, wouldn’t the charioteer have been better off hanging on? Chariots had iron-rimmed wheels with zero suspension and could barely operate on flat, level ground, much less on the messy terrain where battles were fought.

Second, we’ve never tried whipping our horses along with a large, unruly snake. Not sure how that would go.

Third, did the ancients really fight naked like this, with spears and arrows flying everywhere? As if a crash helmet would help this dude in a fall.

The simplest explanation, of course, is that the Austro-Hungarians built this monument in 1896 after centuries of marrying their way to empire. One might not expect the rotund, plutocratic Hapsburgs to know much about fields of battle.

And the truth is, chariots never really made it as war machines. The largest chariot battle, involving roughly 5,000 vehicles on either side, was also the oldest recorded major battle in history. But after Ramesses II and the Egyptians duked it out with Mutawalli II and his Hittites at Kadesh in 1274BCE, the fad seems to have rapidly faded. Nearly all those martial pot shards, mosaics, paintings, and statues you’ve seen are complete fakes.

At least until Charlton Heston and Stephen Boyd let loose in the 1959 epic Ben Hur. The famous chariot race scene took the movie-going public by storm and did indeed feature the overpriced stars careening around a specially constructed stadium carved out of an Italian quarry. But that nine-minute sequence (on a hyper-smooth track of imported sand) took a year of preparation, hundreds of miles of racing and film stock, and more than 20% of the film’s production budget.

No one died making the movie, of course, although the stuntman Joe Canutt came closer than he might have wished. Nevertheless, upon reflection, we’ve decided to stick with the metro and its chariot-gauge tracks.

Categories: Europe, Hungary