[Leeswaarschuwing: Onderstaande tekst bevat details over de inhoud en de afloop van het verhaal.]
In AD 180, Hispano-Roman General Maximus Decimus Meridius intends to return to his home after he leads the Roman army to victory against the Germanic tribes near Vindobona on the Limes Germanicus. Emperor Marcus Aurelius tells Maximus that his own son, Commodus, is unfit to rule and that he wishes Maximus to succeed him, as regent, to help save Rome from corruption. Commodus murders his father when he is told about the plan.
Commodus announces he is the new Emperor and asks Maximus for his loyalty, but the general refuses. Maximus is arrested by guards and is told that he and his family will die. He kills his captors and rides for his home near Trujillo, where he finds his family murdered. Maximus buries his wife and son; then collapses. He is found by slavers who take him to the Roman province of Zucchabar, where he is sold to a gladiator trainer named Proximo.
Although reluctant at first, Maximus fights in local tournaments and makes friends with two other gladiators: Juba, a Numidian; and Hagen, a German. His military skills help him win matches and gain recognition from other gladiators and the crowd. Proximo reveals that he was once a gladiator, and advises Maximus that he must "win the crowd" to win his freedom. Proximo takes his gladiators to fight in Rome's Colosseum, because Commodus has organized 150 days of games.
Disguised by a masked helmet, Maximus debuts in gladiatorial combat in the Colosseum as a Carthaginian in a re-enactment of the Battle of Zama. Unexpectedly, Maximus leads his side to victory, and Commodus enters the Colosseum to offer his congratulations. He orders the disguised Maximus, as leader of the gladiators, to show himself and give his name; Maximus reveals himself and declares vengeance. Commodus is compelled by the crowd to let the gladiators live, and the Praetorian Guard is held back from striking them down.
Maximus's next fight is a victory against a legendary undefeated gladiator. Commodus orders Maximus to kill the gladiator, but Maximus spares his opponent's life; he is called "Maximus the Merciful" by the crowd. Angered at this outcome, Commodus taunts Maximus about his family's deaths, but Maximus turns and walks away.
Maximus discovers from Cicero, his ex-orderly, that his former legions remain loyal. Lucilla, Commodus's sister; Gracchus, an influential senator; and Maximus meet secretly. Maximus will escape Rome, join his soldiers, topple Commodus by force, and hand power back to the Roman Senate. Commodus learns of the plot by threatening Lucilla, and has the Praetorian Guard arrest Gracchus and attack the gladiators' barracks. Proximo and his men, including Hagen, sacrifice themselves to enable Maximus to escape. Maximus is captured at the rendezvous with Cicero, where Cicero is killed.
Commodus challenges Maximus to a duel in the Colosseum. He stabs Maximus before the match to gain an advantage. Maximus disarms Commodus, whom the Praetorian Guard refuse to aid. Commodus then produces a hidden knife, which Maximus drives into his throat, killing him. Maximus succumbs to his wound. Before he dies, he asks for political reforms, for his gladiator allies to be freed, and for Senator Gracchus to be reinstated. Maximus's friends and allies honor him as "a soldier of Rome", at Lucilla's behest, and carry his body out of the arena, leaving the dead Commodus behind.
Juba visits the Colosseum at night and buries the figurines of Maximus's wife and son at the spot where he died. Juba says he is to return to his own family and promises to see Maximus again, "but not yet".
Russell Crowe as Maximus Decimus Meridius:
a Hispano-Roman legatus forced into becoming a slave who seeks revenge against Commodus. He has earned the favor of Marcus Aurelius, and the love and admiration of Lucilla prior to the events of the film. His home is near Trujillo in today's Province of Cáceres, Spain. After the murder of his family he vows vengeance. Maximus is a fictional character partly inspired by Marcus Nonius Macrinus, Narcissus, Cincinnatus, and Maximus of Hispania. Mel Gibson was first offered the role, but declined as he felt he was too old to play the character. Antonio Banderas and Hugh Jackman were also considered.
Joaquin Phoenix as Commodus:
The amoral, power-hungry, twisted son of Marcus Aurelius, he murders his father when he learns that Maximus will hold the emperor's powers in trust until a new republic can be formed.
Connie Nielsen as Lucilla:
Maximus's former lover and the older child of Marcus Aurelius. Lucilla has been recently widowed. She resists her brother's incestuous advances and hates him, while also having to be careful to protect her son, Lucius, from her brother's corruption and wrath.
Oliver Reed as Antonius Proximo:
An old, gruff gladiator trainer 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, and becomes somewhat of a mentor to Maximus. This was Reed's final film appearance, before he died during the filming. In the original film script, Proximo was supposed to live.