The film opens with a shot of Maximus’ hand (with wedding ring prominent) running through a cornfield, juxtaposed with a bloody battle immediately afterward. This establishes the core principles of a family man who is committed to his home alongside the hero of bloody carnage.
On the outer fringes of the Roman Empire in Germania, Maximus leads the Emperor’s legions against the barbarian hordes, instructing his archers: “On my signal, release hell.” In a piece of brilliant strategy, Maximus outflanks the enemy with his cavalry, ensuring a brutal massacre of Rome’s only remaining opposition. This victory brings the war to an end and Maximus is asked by Emperor Marcus Aurelius what he wants. “I want to return to my wife and son; I haven’t seen them for three years” is Maximus’ reply. Marcus Aurelius has other plans, however. Regretting that 13 of his last 16 years have been involved war, he longs to restore the power of the Senate and re-establish democracy in Rome. But he knows that he is dying and, not trusting his own son, asks Maximus to succeed him. Maximus is left with a day to consider his answer.
Meanwhile, the Emperor’s son and daughter, Commodus, and Lucilla have arrived from Rome to witness the final battle. Despite his evident pomposity and arrogance, it is evident that Commodus is fiercely ambitious, believing that he is about to be acclaimed as his father’s heir. In addition, it seems that he desires an incestuous relationship with his sister. She, meanwhile, hints at a past relationship with Maximus as well as a great strength and cunning. Marcus Aurelius remarks: “If you would have been born a man, what a Caesar you would have made.”
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