In 180 AD, general Maximus leads the Roman army in a triumph over Germanic tribes. The emperor Marcus Aurelius who wants him to return to Rome as his successor commends him. The dream is to shift the power from the emperor to the senate and to restore a republic of the people. However, his envious son Commodus, who murders him and orders the execution of Maximus, shatters the old man's plans. The general escapes but his beloved wife and son are brutally murdered at the new emperor's orders. Maximus is captured by slave traders and taken to an African outpost of the empire where Proximo trains men to fight to death as gladiators. The general and the other good fighters are taken to Rome by Proximo to participate in "games" set up at the Coliseum by Commodus as a ploy to win the adoration of the masses. Maximus uses his military prowess to lead his fellow gladiators to victory in their first appearance in the Coliseum and so he becomes the darling of Rome. Commodus is surprised and alarmed when he discovers that the archenemy he thought was dead is wowing the crowds. While he tries to find the most serpentine way of getting rid of him, Lucilla, his sister, hatches a secret plot to overthrow her brother with the help of Maximus and a renegade senator.