In the final days of Marcus Aurelius' reign, the aging emperor angers his son Commodus by making it known that he wants Maximus, a fearsome and respected Roman general, to be his successor. Power-hungry Commodus kills his father and orders the death of Maximus. But the latter flees, only to discover that his wife and child have been murdered by Commodus. Captured, Maximus is forced into slavery, where he is sold to Proximo, a former gladiator who serves as both mentor and slavemaster. Maximus trains as a gladiator in the arena, where his fame grows. He goes to Rome, intent on avenging the murder of his wife and son by killing the new emperor Commodus. Maximus has learned that the one power stronger than that of the emperor is the will of the people, and he knows he can only attain his revenge by becoming the greatest hero in all the empire.