Classics Welcomes New Post-Doctoral Fellow Toni Alimi

By: Sarah Epplin,  Classics
October 25, 2021

This semester the Classics Department welcomes its newest post-doctoral associate, Toni Alimi. Alimi earned his Ph.D. in Religion, Ethics, and Politics at Princeton University before coming to Cornell, where he currently holds a Klarman Fellowship in Classics and Philosophy.

Alimi’s teaching and research encompass ancient philosophy (especially Augustine), intellectual history, and ethics and politics. He was first drawn to the study of philosophy and religion, he says, in the hopes of understanding better “how we ought to live, and especially how we ought to live together.” He adds, “My first encounters with ancient philosophy and intellectual history were thrilling because they gave me the feeling that the questions that mattered to me were ones that people far wiser than I had been asking for thousands of years. It made my questions feel grander, somehow, and for that reason worth pursuing. I suspect others are initially drawn to these figures and texts for similar reasons.”

Recently Alimi’s work has focused on ancient and late antique slavery, which is the topic of his current book project, Slaves of God: Augustine and Other Romans on Religion and Politics. The book will explore Augustine’s views on slavery in an effort “to explain why Augustine thought slavery permissible and to show that slavery is a central organizing concept in his ethics and politics.” Alimi was inspired to look for slavery in Augustine’s thought after reading Sarah Ruden’s 2018 translation of the Confessions, which, he says, “thematizes the concept of ‘slavery’ in a way I hadn’t seen in other translations.” He explains, “Around the same time, I was starting to learn about classical and modern republicanisms. Rhetoric about domination as akin to slavery animated various liberatory movements, including movements that accommodated or endorsed chattel slavery. Many have noted this cruel irony before, but I wondered whether careful attention to the history of slavery might help us explain it. I think that’s one thing I’m still trying to do.”

In addition to completing Slaves of God, Alimi hopes to soon begin work on an intellectual history of penal slavery, distinguishing this form of slavery-as-punishment from natural slavery. He says, “The rejection of the category of natural slavery represents genuine moral progress. But if penal slavery – a version of which we find inscribed in the 13th Amendment – remains a live option, those granted access to citizenship when slavery is denaturalized may find their citizenship rendered precarious because of the threat of penal slavery. Penal slavery decoupled from natural slavery introduces a new kind of precarity for persons marked as potential candidates for punishment.” Alimi is excited about the potential for this project to illuminate the paths that lead from classical antiquity all the way to the American abolition movement and beyond: “[This project] might give us a way to trace some of the political and social threads that come together in American abolition (and its backlash) back to classical antiquity, through a long history of reflection on various kinds of slavery that have existed throughout history. In other words, I hope this project can provide some context for how we have arrived at where we are.”

As he finishes up his current book and embarks on his next project, Alimi looks forward to the opportunity to engage and exchange ideas with many Cornell faculty; in particular, Assistant Professor of Classics Nicole Giannella (who works on slavery in ancient Roman legal, literary, and philosophical texts), Associate Professor of Government Patchen Markell (who is a political theorist studying authority, rule, and political agency), Professor of History Edward Baptist (who studies the enslavement of African Americans in the American South), and Professor of Law Barbara Holden-Smith (whose work on U.S. Supreme Court history focuses on African Americans and the Supreme Court, including the legal response to lynching and fugitive-slave cases).

In addition to his research, Alimi looks forward to exploring all that the Ithaca area has to offer during his time here. He says, “My wife and I have found Ithaca to be a beautiful place to live so far, and have enjoyed the gorges, falls, hills, and parks. Plenty of people promised that we would, but it was difficult for me to appreciate just how lovely this corner of the world is before we moved here. We look forward to experiencing even more of that. I’m also excited to learn more about the role St. James A.M.E. Zion Church played as an Underground Railroad station, and the anti-slavery movement in Ithaca and upstate New York more generally.”

Please join the Classics Department in welcoming Toni Alimi to Cornell!




Toni Alimi