Roman General Maximus Decimus Meridius leads the Roman Army to victory against Germanic barbarians in the year A.D. 180, ending a prolonged war, and earning the esteem of elderly Emperor Marcus Aurelius. Maximus Decimus Meridius is a fictional character partly inspired by Marcus Nonius Macrinus, Narcissus, Spartacus, Cincinnatus, and Maximus of Hispania. As the battle ends, a son and daughter of the Emperor arrive, Commodus and Lucilla.
Although the dying Aurelius has a male heir, Commodus, he decides to appoint temporary leadership to the morally-upstanding Maximus, with a desire to eventually return power to the Roman Senate, effectively reviving the Republic. 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, realizing Commodus' involvement in the Emperor's death, refuses. Commodus orders Maximus' execution and dispatches Praetorian Guards to murder his wife and son. Maximus narrowly escapes his execution, but is injured in the process. He races home only to discover his family's charred and crucified bodies in the smoldering ruins of his villa in Hispania. After burying his wife and son, a grieving Maximus succumbs to exhaustion and blood loss as a result of his injuries and collapses on their graves.