The 2000 film Gladiator starred Russell Crowe as Maximus Decimus Meridius, a Roman general and confidant of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius (see At Vindobona), who is betrayed by Aurelius' son and successor, Commodus, his family murdered and he sold into slavery before returning to Rome as a gladiator.
THC is a fan of the movie and believes it would not have been nearly as good with anyone other than Crowe in the role of Maximus. He gives the appearance of seriously studying Stoicism in preparation for the role, seeming to exist as someone of that 2nd century AD era and giving the movie a grounding in reality (or at least the appearance of reality). Along with LA Confidential and Master And Commander it is one of THC's favorite Crowe roles.
(Russell Crowe from heberger-image)
The gravitas Crowe embodies as Maximus is important since in many respects the plot of the film, while well executed and entertaining, is pure historical fantasy.
Marcus Aurelius (d. 180 AD) is considered the last of a series of five "good emperors", the others being Antoninus Pius (d. 161), Hadrian (d. 138), Trajan (d. 117) and Nerva (d. 98 after a reign of only two years). It is of this period that Edward Gibbon wrote of (with a bit of hyperbole) in his History Of The Decline And Fall Of The Roman Empire (1776):
If a man were called upon to fix that period in the history of the world during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would, without hesitation, name that which elapsed from the deaths of Domitian  to the accession of Commodus .In the film Aurelius is shown offering to appoint Maximus as his successor; a reluctant Maximus only agreeing to think it over at the Emperor's prodding. Meanwhile, Commodus, Aurelius' 18-year old son, gets wind of this offer and kills his father, ascending to the throne and persecuting Maximus and his family.
Maximus is also portrayed as a former lover of Commodus' sister, Lucilla and when he returns to Rome as a slave and gladiator he forms an alliance with her and members of the Roman Senate and slays Commodus in gladiatorial combat in the Coliseum returning Rome to the rule of the Senate and its former glory before dying.
(Marcus Aurelius from bluffton.edu)
In reality Marcus Aurelius clearly designated Commodus as his heir breaking with the tradition of the other "good" emperors, who had no sons and whose heirs were all adopted men of mature age and experience varying from the early 40s to mid-50s. Aurelius believing that his young son, having been tutored by the best classical scholars, would be a ruler worthy of his father (who was one serious minded dude, if you are in doubt read Meditations); and having no clear alternative acceptable to both the army and Roman elites made the decision with terrible results.
Unlike the movie which portrays the rule of Commodus as being relatively brief, the real Commodus reigned for twelve years. And rather than finally bringing his father's wars across the Danube to a successful conclusion with the addition of the new provinces Aurelius planned to add north of the river, he withdrew the Roman legions after negotiating treaties with the Germanic tribes. This allowed him to return to Rome and enjoy the pleasures of the city which were more attractive to him than the business of ruling. While his rule was not off to a sparkling start it rapidly deteriorated after 182 in the wake of a failed assassination attempt. Like many of the younger Roman emperors (Caligula, Nero and Caracalla) he descended into paranoia and irrational behavior, arbitrarily executing those he perceived as threats.
(Commodus from Rome101)
Near the end he arrived at megalomania, calling himself the new Romulus and ritually refounding and renaming Rome as Colonia Lucia Annia Commodiana and renaming the twelve months of the year in honor of the twelve names he had given himself.
Although Commodus did take to fighting in ceremonial gladiatorial combat in the Coliseum (which horrified the elite of Rome), he was not killed in the arena as depicted in the movie. On December 31, 192 he was strangled in his bath by Narcissus, a sometimes wrestling partner and personal trainer, at the behest of Commodus' mistress and others who had become terrified of him.
The Senate was not restored after the death of Commodus. Instead, Rome was plunged into civil war until Septimius Severus seized control and together with successors from his family held power until the last of the line was murdered in a military revolt in 235, plunging Rome into a half-century of chaos (see Diocletian Has A Very Good Day).
There is no direct historical match for Maximus but there is a figure who has some of his aspects - Tiberius Claudius Pompeianus, who reportedly turned down three offers of rule during his lifetime and was married to Commodus' sister Lucilla (yes, the same as in Gladiator, though this Lucilla was 10 to 12 years older than her brother and one of 14 children of Auerlius and his wife, Faustina the Younger). Pompeianus was older than the character portrayed by Crowe, being about 55 years of age at the time of Aurelius, but like Maximus he was an outsider. Maximus is a Roman of Spanish descent while Pompeianus hailed from a Syrian family which obtained Roman citizenship under the Emperor Claudius (41-54) and he was the first to become a Roman senator.
Pompeianus served in the Parthian wars in the east during the first part of Aurelius' reign probably as a legionary commander before becoming governor of Pannonia (modern Hungary). While there the barbarian war, the end of which is the subject of the opening scenes of Gladiator, began and Pompeianus assisted Marcus Aurelius in repulsing the initial invasion and thereafter became a close advisor to the Emperor.
When Aurelius' younger co-emperor Lucius Verus (another echo of Gladiator) died in 169 he left behind his wife, Marcus' daughter Lucilla (they had a son, also named Lucius Verus but while a young son of Lucilla's named Lucius Verus is an important character in Gladiator, the real child Lucius died young before Commodus became emperor). In a demonstration of his respect for Pompeianus, Aurelius arranged for him to marry Lucilla (who did not want to marry Pompeianus because of his age and lower rank and though she bore him three children their relationship was otherwise not close) and also reportedly offered to make him co-emperor in place of the deceased Verus, an honor refused by Pompeianus who continued as the emperor's lead general for the rest of the barbarian wars of his reign.
(Lucilla from Wikipedia)
When his brother-in-law Commodus became emperor, Pompeianus unsuccessfully tried to persuade him to remain on the Danube in order to achieve final victory.
In another echo of Gladiator among those implicated in the assassination plot of 182 was Commodus' sister Lucilla who was exiled and then murdered the following year on orders from her brother. Pompeianus was not believed to be part of the conspiracy and was not prosecuted, instead choosing to retire from public life. It may have been his estrangement from Lucilla that may have stopped her from disclosing the conspiracy to him and saving his life.
Upon the death of Commodus in 192, Pompeianus returned to Rome and was offered the opportunity to become emperor which he again refused. Pertinax who did become emperor was murdered after only three months and succeeded by Didius Julianus who bribed the Praetorian Guard to support him. Julianus' rule quickly began to crumble as the armies of his rival Septimius Severus neared Rome and in a desperate move he asked Pompeianus to be his co-emperor. Once again, Pompeianus smartly refused. Julianus was murdered after only 66 days, and Severus became emperor for the next eighteen years.
Pompeianus died the next year in his late 60s.
The limited nature of our historical sources makes it difficult to assess the accuracy of the accounts of this period or to give us a rounded picture of Pompeianus. Though he may have been offered the role of co-emperor he might have had difficulty lasting long. As an outsider and not a family member he would have inevitably have been subject to the intrigues surrounding most emperors. It was this failure to have a stable system for succession that led to so much turmoil for much of the empire's history. Nonetheless, according to the sources we do have, Pompeianus seems to have had a temperament and sense of duty similar to that of the fictional Maximus.
We'll close with Now We Are Free from Gladiator.