Gladiator is a 2000 epic film directed by Ridley Scott and starring Russell Crowe, Joaquin Phoenix, Connie Nielsen, Oliver Reed, Djimon Hounsou, Derek Jacobi and Richard Harris. Crowe portrays General Maximus Decimus Meridius, friend of Emperor Marcus Aurelius, who is betrayed and murdered by the emperor's ambitious son, Commodus (Phoenix). Captured and enslaved along the outer fringes of the Roman empire, Maximus rises through the ranks of the gladiatorial arena to avenge the murder of his family and his Emperor.
The film won five Academy Awards in the 73rd Academy Awards ceremony, including Best Picture. The film's epic scope and intense battle scenes, as well as the emotional core of its performances, received much praise. The film's success may have helped to revive the sword and sandal subgenre of historical epics, such as the subsequent films Troy, 300, and Scott's own Kingdom of Heaven.
General Maximus Decimus Meridius leads the Roman army to victory against Germanic barbarians in the year 180 AD, ending a prolonged war and earning the esteem of elderly Emperor Marcus Aurelius. Although the dying Aurelius has a son, Commodus, he decides to appoint temporary leadership to the morally-upstanding Maximus, with a desire to eventually return power to the Roman Senate. Aurelius informs Maximus and offers him time to consider before informing Commodus, who, in a bout of jealousy, murders his father. Declaring himself the emperor, Commodus asks Maximus for his loyalty, which Maximus refuses, realizing Commodus' involvement in the Emperor's death. Commodus orders Maximus' execution and dispatches Praetorian Guards to murder Maximus' wife and son. 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, the head of a local 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, a Germanic barbarian, and Juba, a Numidian hunter, the latter becoming a close friend and confidant to the grieving Maximus, the two speaking frequently of the afterlife and Maximus' eventual reunification with his family.
In Rome, Commodus reopens the gladiatorial games to commemorate his father's death, and Proximo's company of gladiators are hired to participate. 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 Maximus as the leader of Proximo's gladiators. The Emperor, unable to kill Maximus because of the crowd's roaring approval for him, sulks out of the arena. As the games continue, Commodus pits Maximus against Tigris of Gaul, 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' decision to kill or spare Tigris. As Commodus votes for death, Maximus spares Tigris, deliberately insulting the Emperor and garnering the audience's approval. 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' own popularity shrinks.
Following the fight, Maximus meets his former servant Cicero, who reveals that Maximus's army remains loyal to him. Maximus forms a plot with Lucilla, Commodus' sister, and Senator Gracchus to reunite Maximus with his army and overthrow Commodus. Commodus however, suspecting his sister's betrayal, threatens her young son and forces her to reveal the plot. 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 witness Cicero's death and be ambushed by a legion of Praetorian guards.
Concluding that legends born in the Colosseum must die there, Commodus challenges Maximus to a duel in front of a roaring audience. Acknowledging that Maximus' 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's hands. Commodus pulls a hidden stiletto and renews his attack, before Maximus beats him into submission and kills him. As Commodus collapses in the now-silent Colosseum, a dying Maximus begins seeing his wife and son in the afterlife. He reaches for them, but is pulled back to reality by the Praetorian prefect Quintus, who asks for instructions. Maximus orders the release of Proximo's gladiators and Senator Gracchus, whom he reinstates and instructs to return Rome to a Senate-based government. Maximus collapses, and Lucilla rushes to his aid. After being reassured that her son is safe and Commodus is dead, Maximus dies and wanders into the afterlife to his 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.
Maximus Decimus Meridius
A Roman general in Germania, turned slave who seeks revenge against Commodus. He had been under the favour of Marcus Aurelius, and the admiration of Lucilla prior to the events of the film. His home is in Spain near Trujillo.
An ambitious, insecure and ruthless young man, Commodus murders his father and also desires his own sister, Lucilla. He becomes the emperor of Rome upon his father's death. Lucilla The elder child of Marcus Aurelius, Lucilla has been recently widowed. She seems to have had a flirtation with Maximus in the past, but now tries to resist the incestuous lust of her brother while protecting her son, Lucius.
Daughter of Marcus Aurelius. Cannot succeed him when he dies because he is a woman. Is in love with Maximus, but is tied down to being with her treacherous brother Commodus. Aids in the attempted escape of Maximus.
A Numidian tribesman who is taken from his home and family by slave traders, who becomes Maximus' close ally during their shared hardships.
An old and gruff trader who buys Maximus in North Africa. A former gladiator himself, he was freed by Marcus Aurelius, and gives Maximus his own armor and eventually a chance at freedom.
One of the senators who opposed Commodus' leadership, who eventually agrees to aid Maximus in his overthrow of the Emperor.
A Germanic and Proximo's chief gladiator. Later befriends Maximus and Juba during their battles in Rome.
Son of Lucilla. He admires Maximus and incures the wrath of his uncle, Commodus, by impersonating the gladiator. Lucius is a free-spirit and seems to like his uncle at first until Commodus's true sinister nature comes to the fore.
An emperor of Rome who desires a return to Republican government but is murdered by his son Commodus before doing so.
A Roman soldier and Maximus' loyal servant who provides him with information while Maximus is enslaved.
Another Roman General and former friend to Maximus. Made commander of the praetorian guards by Commodus, earning his loyalty.
Another senator who is in close correspondence to Gracchus.
A Patrician, a senator opposed to Gracchus. Helps Commodus consolidate his power.
- The film in one sense revolves around one central point. Marcus Aurelius is unable to pick his daughter Lucilia as his successor – because woman were not allowed to become emperor -- and is left only with his unprincipled son as a viable candidate. (He says at one point, if only she were a man; and that she has the character to be a fine leader.) That in turn leads to his choosing Maximus instead, who is a great military hero, is someone he loves, and whom he believes can restore the Republic; yet who does not have the aspiration to be involved in the change in government. (He will never get a chance to fulfill Marcus Aurelius wishes.)
- The fact that Rome would not embrace a woman can in one sense be seen as the basis of the trouble and tragedy that is captured in the film.
- In ancient Rome, there was this continuous conflict between the power of the monarchy and that of the Republic, which is to say the Senate. In modern democracies, both are allowed to exist; plus there is a judicial branch to oversee both. The Romans were unable to follow the Greek ideal, making Gods out of emperors and periodically renouncing their democratic roots.
- Maximus was asked to become the successor by Aurelius, but he was not really cut out for such things. He was a mere general and soldier -- not a national leader and politician. He is caught up in national affairs when his skill and aspiration is for something quite less. That vantage point alone can account for his death. Despite his vast courage and high moral character, he and his actions are not able to produce enough positive energy in that regard to ward off much larger forces, including that of the evil of Commodus and the problem of succession that he was became entangled in.
- His heroic deed to save his family is rewarded when he is knocked out and taken by the slave traders to North Africa where he can become a great gladiator before Rome and change the course of history, including bringing about the death of Commodus. It is a powerful positive life response.
- In the end, the Republic is restored without Maximus having to call in the army. It is one sense a bloodless coup, except for the shedding of his own. It is due to all of his efforts. (In essence, by killing Commodus, he overcomes the needs for his army to come in and perhaps violently and forcefully secure the city.)
- Maximus has fully achieved his goal in life. Even in death, he is reunited with his family, fulfilling his deepest aspirations.
- When Lucilla acknowledges that he is returning to his family in the afterlife after death, it shows high moral character, beyond her own needs to love him. I.e. she is not bitter. She changes throughout the story from a person of potential treachery to one of noble qualities. Like young Queen Elizabeth I, she is in a very difficult spot during the reign of Commodus. She plays the balancing game, and succeeds in the end.
- The paradox for Marcus Aurelius is that he cannot give love to his unprincipled son Commodus, and yet that leads to his own death when Commodus kills him in a moment of rage as he revisits the fact that he love for his father is unrequited. Could Marcus have found a better way, where he could have still felt the love, while still keeping Commodus at bay as being successor in a more congenial fashion. E.g., he might have given him some of the love he gave to Maximus. It is a difficult thing to say.
- Did Rome have to extend its power as it did here in future Germany only through conquering? Was there such things as diplomacy yet born. What happened to the Greek ideals of thought and reason? If she had followed them, Rome may have served a greater and longer lasting role in world history. In fact, Greek ideals of rationality is the basis of Western life, and in that sense has outlived Rome.
- The barbarous quality of Roman life is clearly demonstrated in the vile gladiator matches held in the countryside and in the Roman coliseum. It is no wonder that Jesus came to bring Love. And yet Rome brought order, progress, and civilized the future Western world. What the Renaissance brought 1000 years after the fall of Rome was however the next stage of Western evolution, and restored the Greek ideals in its own creative way.
- Maximus is physical, but he is also a moral man. Even the savage Coliseum crowd responds to the mercy he shows by not slaying Rome’s most famous gladiator. It brings out the tiny bit of idealism of the crowd. It galvanizes Maximus’s legend and allows him to garner great admiration and power.
- Maximus is also a man of some faith, and belief in Higher Powers.
- Maximus is a born leader – fearless, courageous, attracting the loyalty of his men. He himself is willing to do anything to succeed, and so they are willing to do anything for him. As in Shakespeare’s Henry V and the film 300.
- Maximus also has a developed enough mind to use clever and well thought out tactics for success on the battlefield.
- Though physical, Maximus has many positive physical values, is noble, is righteous, and has faith.
- Maximus has almost supernatural physical skills. He is not afraid to die, and no challenge deters him or raises fear. He is fearless. He is not even afraid of confronting the king in his first battle in the arena before the king.
- Maximus attracts Juba immediately after he is taken by the slave traders. Juba would be a great character and friend who helps Maximus every step of the way. He has many of the same qualities of Maximus, plus keen insight into human nature. He understands what motivates Maximus, and stands behind him.
- Men physically die to help others live in this time. It is common. Life is harsh and brutal. Physical toil and sacrifice for the sake of others is honored and necessary.
- Maximus is an incredible killing machine. Yet he cannot bear up under the treachery of Commodus who wounds him before the battle in the Coliseum, though he is defeated by Maximus in the battle. It can be seen that the treachery of Rome overrules the energy of goodness and thus Maximus dies. But he does so for a great cause, the restoration of rationality and democracy.
- With Marcus Aurelius away on wars, Commodus can plan his treachery in advance. In the movie and the historical Marcus, he regretted he could not put more time into running the country, and less into war with the societies on the edge of the Empire, like the (future) Germans.