In around 720 B.C., Greek colonists settled on the Gulf of Taranto, in the foot of Italy, in a place called Sybaris. The Sybarites, as the colonists are known, quickly earned notoriety for cultural excess. Partial to boisterous all-night drinking parties—not to mention dancing horses and rosy-cheeked pipers—they were also said to be so fond of sleep that they banned roosters from their city. With no dawn chorus to wake them from their slumbers, they could go about their days at leisure, bathing and then partying into the small hours.

After Sybaris was destroyed by a neighboring colony, the Athenians helped to found a comparatively sober site nearby. Thurii, the new foundation, consisted of a smart network of streets laid out on a grid plan. In the fifth century B.C., Herodotus, the father of history,...


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