Gladiator Ending Explained: Roman Retribution And Elysian Reunions

Ridley Scott's grandiose Roman revenge film "Gladiator" has remained a staple of historical epics since it was released back in 2000. With its sweeping vistas of Rome, iconic (and forever quotable) scenes, and brutal action, the film is a beautiful and visceral immersion into one of the largest empires of the ancient world. Maximus Decimus Meridius (Russell Crowe), a Roman general turned gladiator after his loyalty to the Emperor leads to his family's murder, is portrayed as an unstoppable force that survives cruel betrayals, the murder of his family, and the carnage of the gladiator arenas to reach the seemingly untouchable and scheming Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix). 

The film's ending — a fight to the death between Maximus and Commodus, fixed beforehand by the latter literally stabbing him in the back — is a magnificent fulfillment of the film's arc for both Maximus and Rome's republic. Maximus avenges the deaths of his wife and son by killing Commodus, while also imparting to the crowd before he dies the final request of the assassinated Emperor Marcus Aurelius: to return Rome to the people. With Scott announcing plans for a Gladiator sequel, now's the time to explore the ways in which the monumental film's ending is so satisfying.

Gladiator's ending illustrates the disparities between Maximus and Commodus

Throughout the film, Maximus and Commodus are portrayed as foils of one another: the former earning popular respect from the people no matter where he fights, be it a battlefield or an arena; the latter losing that respect as he grows more fearful of losing his authority. Nowhere in the film is this juxtaposition more potent than the final scene. 

Commodus sees the duel as his only means of regaining the people's love, vanquishing their hero and turning him into just another warrior slain in the Coliseum's dust. But his plan backfires even as he rigs the fight — when Maximus manages to disarm Commodus and he asks for aid, Quintus refuses and orders the Praetorian guard not to intervene. It's a powerful moment, especially since it was Quintus who helped carry out the orders that nearly led to Maximus' execution. The refusal of Commodus' own guard is the final blow to his authority as the emperor. And the final shot of Commodus' body being left on the Coliseum floor and Maximus' being carried off by the Praetorians and senators further underscores the reverence for the former General over the now-dead false emperor.

Maximus avenges and is reunited with his family

When Marcus Aurelius tells Maximus that he wants him to lead the empire rather than his own son, Maximus rejects the offer. He explains that he has served Rome in every way he can and now desires only to return to his family. It's that singular desire that drives Maximus throughout the film after his wife and son are mercilessly killed and crucified at Commodus' orders. Visions of him entering Elysium, crossing fields of wheat to reach them in dreamlike sequences, are conjured up to remind us that behind his desire for revenge is a nullifying hope for peace in being reunited with his family. 

That's why, when Maximus falls after defeating Commodus, his death is never treated as defeat. In fact, Crowe has revealed that Maximus wasn't originally dead at the film's conclusion, but that Scott made the now necessary change halfway through filming. It's hard to see the film ending differently, given that Maximus' sole purpose, the very same one he had at the beginning of the film, is to see his family again. His success proves his goal untainted by Commodus' treachery. As Maximus stands in the arena, surrounded by the Praetorian guard and thousands of Roman citizens, he sees only the face of his family smiling back at him and there is a truly powerful sense of peace that washes over him and the audience as we finally see our hero reach the end of his laborious and painful journey.

The Republic of Rome is restored

When Maximus finally drives a knife into Commodus' neck, he effectively ends the reign of an emperor driven mad by jealousy and fear. He then carries out the last wishes of Commodus' father, the assassinated Emperor Marcus Aurelius, telling all present that Rome is to be returned to the Senate and thus the people. In restoring Rome to a republic, Maximus once again rejects the lust for power that poisoned Commodus and fulfills his duty as a Roman soldier and citizen. He also asks that his fellow gladiators be freed and that Senator Gracchus, one of the men who helped him plot against Commodus, be reinstated. 

While Maximus' main drive might've been killing the man who had his family murdered, he never forgets his duty to Marcus or the Roman people. His personal strife makes him relatable, but it's the toppling of a tyrant and his hope that the people of Rome come together now to build something better that makes him an aspirational ideal.