‘Gladiator’ ending explained: Why does Maximus die?
(Credit: Netflix)

Film Flashback

'Gladiator' ending explained: Why does Maximus die?

Gladiator was director Ridley Scott’s ambitious take on ancient Rome, with Russell Crowe donning metal and leather to play a fallen Roman general. Maximus is captured as a slave and sent to fight as a gladiator in the Colosseum for Rome’s corrupt and narcissistic Emperor Commodus. Behind the scenes, the production was no less dramatic than the movie itself.

Its plot is loosely based on the real succession of Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius by his son Commodus, although there is no historical basis for the plotline that Commodus murdered his father. Nevertheless, the real Commodus was a major disappointment to Aurelius and was seen by late Roman historians as a symbol of the empire’s decline.

As for the fictionalised version of the story, it’s a classic revenge tragedy which gives Maximus the chance to settle some old scores with Commodus. After killing his own father, who had preferred General Maximus as an heir to him, Commodus then has Maximus’ wife and son killed and Maximus himself arrested. It was also this chain of events that forced Maximus into servitude and to fight other gladiators to the death in the arena for the emperor’s amusement.

And so, it is particularly satisfying when Commodus gets his comeuppance. In the movie’s climax, he challenges Maximus to a fight, and Maximus turns his own knife against him and fatally stabs him in the throat.

With Commodus dead, the film’s hero has avenged his family and the emperor he previously served as a general, and it should be time for him to take his place at the head of Rome’s empire as Marcus Aurelius had intended. Instead, Maximus slowly bleeds to death on the floor of the arena.

What was the cause of Maximus’ death?

Immediately prior to the battle in the gladiatorial arena, Commodus and Maximus come face to face as Commodus informs his opponent of the fight. Maximus quotes Marcus Aurelius to the son who killed him: “Death smiles at us all. All we can do is smile back.”

This invocation of his father appears to provoke Commodus, who calls Maximus his brother before embracing him and thrusting a knife deep into his side. This knife inflicted a mortal wound on Maximus, but Commodus has his men seal the injury so that it takes effect more slowly.

As he dies in the arena, Maximus sees visions of the Elysian plains, the Greco-Roman version of the afterlife afforded to those blessed by the gods. He sees his wife and son waiting for him as he wades through the long grass of the plains, and his son runs towards him.

The fact that Maximus gave his life to rid Rome of its evil emperor adds weight to the story of Gladiator. A conventionally happy ending with Maximus presiding over the rebuilding of the empire wouldn’t have provided the same gravitas.

In the film’s final moments, Commodus’ virtuous sister Lucilla asks Senator Gracchus in relation to the death of Maximus, “Is Rome worth one good man’s life?” She adds, “We believed it once. Make us believe it again.”

Sadly, the reality didn’t pan out quite as she’d hoped. Following Commodus’s death, Rome continued to suffer economic, territorial, and social degradation until it was sacked by tribes from Northern and Western Europe fewer than 300 years later.