Maximus is a powerful Roman general, loved by the people and the aging Emperor, Marcus Aurelius. Before his death, the Emperor chooses Maximus to be his heir over his own son, Commodus, and a power struggle leaves Maximus and his family condemned to death. The powerful general is unable to save his family, and his loss of will allows him to get captured and put into the Gladiator games until he dies. The only desire that fuels him now is the chance to rise to the top so that he will be able to look into the eyes of the man who will feel his revenge.
Commodus takes power and strips rank from Maximus, one of the favored generals of his predecessor and father, Emperor Marcus Aurelius, the great stoical philosopher. Maximus is then relegated to fighting to the death in the gladiator arenas.
In Gladiator, victorious general Maximus Decimus Meridias has been named keeper of Rome and its empire by dying emperor Marcus Aurelius, so that rule might pass from the Caesars back to the people and Senate. Marcus' neglected and power-hungry son, Commodus, has other ideas, however. Escaping an ordered execution, Maximus hurries back to his home in Spain, too late to save his wife and son from the same order. Taken into slavery and trained as a gladiator by Proximo, Maximus lives only that he might someday take his revenge and fulfill the dying wish of his emperor. The time soon comes when Proximo's troupe is called to Rome to participate in a marathon of gladiator games held at the behest of the new emperor, Commodus. Once in Rome, Maximus wastes no time in making his presence known, and is soon involved in a plot to overthrow the emperor with his former-love Lucilla, Commodus' sister, after whom he lusts, and also the widowed mother of Lucius, heir to the empire after his uncle, and democratic-minded senator, Gracchus.
A dying Marcus Aurelius plans to name his loyal and brave General Maximus as his successor in order to restore the power of the Roman Senate. However, his power-hungry, jealous son Commodus learns of the plan, murders Marcus Aurelius, and plans to execute Maximus in order to secure his claim to the throne. Maximus escapes execution, but is sold into slavery and is forced to become a gladiator. Eventually, Maximus and his fellow gladiators are sent to Rome to perform for Commodus. Through his bravery he wins over the masses and reveals his true identity, much to the chagrin of Commodus. Can Maximus use his newfound popularity to avenge Marcus Aurelius' death, or will Commodus be able to keep the throne?
When a Roman General is betrayed, and his family murdered by an emperor's corrupt son, he comes to Rome as a gladiator to seek revenge.
- Shouting "Roma victor!" as his forces attack, General Maximus Decimus Meridius (Russell Crowe) leads his Roman legions to victory against Germanic barbarians in the year 180 A.D., ending a prolonged war and earning the esteem of elderly Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris). The emperor's son Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) and daughter Lucilla (Connie Nielsen) have been summoned to join the campaign because Marcus Aurelius is about to name his successor. Commodus, confident he'll be chosen, is friendly to Maximus, calling him "brother." Lucilla and Maximus apparently had a romantic involvement at some time in the past; Commodus is concerned that it will trouble her to see him again. (Lucilla has since married, had a son, and been widowed.) Marcus tells Lucilla he asked her to come because her brother, who's very fond of her, will soon need her more than ever.
Marcus appoints the morally-upstanding Maximus as his successor, with the understanding that Maximus will eventually restore the Roman Republic by returning power to the senate. Maximus, longing to go home to his wife and son, tries to decline the honor, but Marcus Aurelius insists that not wanting the job makes Maximus the best man for it. At the end of a wrenching interview in which Commodus accuses his father of not recognizing his virtues and never loving him, Commodus confesses that all he ever wanted was his father's love and approval -- and then he smothers him.
Declaring himself emperor, Commodus asks Maximus for his loyalty, which Maximus, realizing Commodus' involvement in Marcus Aurelius's death, refuses. Commodus orders Maximus arrested and executed and dispatches Praetorian guards to murder Maximus's wife (Giannina Facio) and young son (Giorgio Cantarini). Maximus narrowly escapes his execution and races home only to discover his family's charred and crucified bodies in the smoldering ruins of his villa. After burying his wife and son, a grieving Maximus succumbs to exhaustion and collapses on their graves.
Slave traders find Maximus and take him to Zucchabar, a rugged province in North Africa, where he is purchased by Proximo (Oliver Reed), the head of a gladiator school. Distraught and nihilistic over the death of his family and betrayal by his empire, Maximus initially refuses to fight, but as he defends himself in the arena his formidable combat skills lead to a rise in popularity with the audience. As he trains and fights further, Maximus befriends Hagen (Ralf Moeller), a Germanic barbarian, and Juba (Djimon Hounsou), a Numidian hunter. Juba becomes a close friend and confidant of the grieving Maximus, and the two speak frequently of the afterlife and Maximus' eventual reunification with his family.
In Rome, Commodus reopens the gladiatorial games to commemorate his father's death, declaring 150 days of celebration in a bid to win the affections of the Roman populace. Proximo's company of gladiators is hired to participate. Proximo tells Maximus that his abilities as a fighter won't be enough in Rome; he needs to win the affections of the audience. Maximus at first doesn't like the idea of playing to the crowd, but Proximo explains that it might save his life, revealing that he himself used to be a gladiator, and after gaining popularity was freed by the Emperor Marcus Aurelius -- he shows Maximus the wooden sword he received at the time. Maximus is incredulous at first ("You knew Marcus Aurelius?"), but then realizes this strategy might get him close enough to Commodus to get his revenge.
In a recreation of the Battle of Zama (incorrectly named the Battle of Carthage) at the Colosseum, Maximus leads Proximo's gladiators to decisive victory against a more powerful force, much to the amazement of the crowd. Commodus descends into the arena to meet the victors and is stunned to discover that the leader of Proximo's gladiators is Maximus. The emperor, unable to kill Maximus because of the crowd's roaring approval for him, gives the thumbs-up sign allowing Maximus to live and sulks out of the arena.
As the games continue, Commodus pits Maximus against Tigris of Gaul (Sven-Ole Thorsen), Rome's only undefeated gladiator, in an arena surrounded by chained tigers with handlers instructed to target Maximus. Following an intense battle, Maximus narrowly defeats Tigris and awaits Commodus's decision to kill or spare Tigris. Though Commodus votes for death (thumb down), Maximus spares Tigris, deliberately insulting the emperor and garnering the audience's approval. With his bitter enemy now known as "Maximus the Merciful," Commodus becomes more frustrated at his inability to kill Maximus or stop his ascending popularity while Commodus's own popularity shrinks.
Following the fight, Maximus meets his former servant Cicero (Tommy Flanagan), who reveals that Maximus's army remains loyal to him. They are camped at the port of Ostia. Lucilla, increasingly fearful of her brother's instability and incestuous desires, forms a plot with Maximus and Senator Gracchus (Derek Jacobi) to reunite Maximus with his army and overthrow Commodus. Commodus, however, learns of his sister's betrayal from her young son Lucius (Spencer Treat Clark) and forces her to reveal the plot by threatening the boy. Praetorian guards immediately storm Proximo's gladiator barracks, battling the gladiators while Maximus escapes. Hagen and Proximo are killed in the siege while Juba and the survivors are imprisoned. Maximus escapes to the city walls only to be ambushed by a cohort of Praetorian guards who use Cicero as bait, killing him as soon as Maximus comes out in the open.
Concluding that legends born in the Colosseum must die there, Commodus personally challenges Maximus to a duel in front of a roaring audience. Acknowledging that Maximus's skill exceeds his own, Commodus deliberately stabs Maximus with a stiletto, puncturing his lung, and has the wound concealed beneath the gladiator's armor. In the arena, the two exchange blows before Maximus rips the sword from Commodus' hands. Commodus requests a sword from his guards, but they refuse to lend him their weapons. Maximus drops his own sword, but Commodus pulls a hidden stiletto and renews his attack. Maximus then beats Commodus into submission and kills him with his own stiletto.
As Commodus collapses in the now-silent Colosseum, a dying Maximus sees his wife and son in the afterlife. He reaches for them, but is pulled back to reality by the Praetorian prefect Quintus (Tomas Arana), who asks for instructions. Maximus orders the release of Proximo's gladiators and Senator Gracchus, whom he reinstates and instructs to lead the restoration of power to the senate: as Marcus Aurelius intended, Rome will be a republic again. Maximus collapses and Lucilla rushes to his side. After being reassured that her son is safe and Commodus is dead, Maximus dies and wanders into the afterlife to his home and family in the distance. Senator Gracchus and Proximo's gladiators carry his body out of the Colosseum. That night, a newly-freed Juba buries Maximus' two small statues of his wife and son in the Colosseum (in the patch of Maximus' blood), and says that he too will eventually join them, "but not yet."