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The word gladiator comes from the Latin word for sword, which is gladius. The image of a gladiator has captivated the modern age. Hollywood in particular, has glamorized the life of a gladiator. However, the life of a real gladiator was far from ideal. Selling gladiators and training them for the mass games was a profitable business. The gladiators were considered property. A slave forced to be a gladiator could not protest his enslavement because a slave had no legal right to bring a claim in court.
Gladiators were usually slaves bought by professional gladiator trainers. Training gladiators to fight was a lucrative business. Ancient Roman politicians were known to spend lavish sums to hold gladitorial games. However, some gladiators were people who voluntarily chose to become gladiators. These volunteers were paid and were called auctoratii. These “volunteers” were often from poor socioeconomic backgrounds. Gladiatorial school provided housing, food and a chance of gaining worldwide fame. However, even these volunteers were technically slaves to their training masters. Just because they were not originally slaves to begin with, did not automatically mean that they would get special treatment.
Very few gladiators lived to earn their freedom and become respectable citizens. The odds of having to survive several life threatening combats were very slim. Even if a gladiator was to earn his freedom, the stigma of an arenario (those who appeared in the area) made it difficult for a gladiator to live a life of a respected freedman. Criminals condemned to the arena (called damnatii, while those who were considered a nuisance to society were called noxii) were branded like cattle, so that even if they were to survive the combats, they would be branded as dishonorable by the public.
To be fair, gladiators were treated a little better than the average slaves. If a gladiator were to get injured, he would not be able to fight. This would be disastrous for the trainers and owners who depended on these fights to earn their keep. There are some ancient accounts that say that some prominent gladiators received superior medical treatment and the best choice of food. Not bad for a slave!