Maximus: all you need to know is in the name itself. Think maximum; at the max; the best there is.
Hey, no one is saying that Gladiator is a masterwork of subtlety—they're just saying that is basically defines the word "epic."
Dude's name suggests somebody whose importance and abilities cannot be overstated, and that is a perfect way to think about Maximus Decimus Meridius. But don't take the literal name thing too far—Decimus means "the tenth" (although it sort of sounds like decimate, which Maximus does to his enemies) and Meridius means "from Meridia, a Roman outpost in Spain.
Put together, he's Maximus the tenth, of Meridia. It's both a forceful name (Maximus, right) and one that sounds pretty salt-of-the-earth. Ever hear that early 00's earmworm, "Jenny From The Block?" Yeah. That's kind of what Maximus' name sounds like: he's an everyday Joe who's made good.
If Commodus is the epitome of all that is unnatural (his crimes are horrific, and his lustful thoughts towards his sister are beyond creepy), Maximus is just the opposite. The very fact that he rubs his hands in the dirty before his fights suggests that he's a strong, organic connection to nature and to what is natural.
You want specifics? No problem.
We're first introduced to Maximus during a campaign in Germania where the Romans defeat the barbarian tribes. When Maximus walks among the ranks of his men, heroic music's playing and many soldiers voluntarily (it doesn't seem like it's mandatory) kneel down as they respectfully acknowledge him.
This guy commands respect.
Shortly afterwards, Maximus gives a rousing speech to his cavalry and announces one of the film's main themes:
MAXIMUS: What we do in life…echoes in eternity.
Yeah. He doesn't mess around with pithy jokes: Max just straight to the stunningly inspirational messages.
The troops are filled with confidence, and proceed to "unleash hell" (Maximus' words) on their opponents. These soldiers love him. Even troops that are later commanded by generals loyal to Commodus are still loyal to Maximus.
MAXIMUS: When my men see me alive you shall see where their loyalties lies.
Yes, pretty much everything Maximus says is laden with important. He's not exactly a wisecracker.
Maximus is a general, but his leadership skills are applicable just about anywhere. He quickly becomes the leader of the other gladiators he meets in Africa; he directs them in combat, and quickly earns their loyalty. There is no better indication of the gladiators' loyalty to Maximus than the scene where Hagen voluntarily tests Maximus' food to make sure it isn't poisoned—if you're taking that kind of risk, you're definitely in awe of someone.
Maximus even gets his boss/owner, Proximo, on board. Not only is a mutual trust between them, but Proximo once again takes up his sword and fights against Commodus' troops so Maximus can escape and rejoin his army (an army that, as Cicero tells Maximus, would be ready to fight for him on a day's notice).
In other words, Maximus is the kind of guy who commands not only respect, but also love. He's basically the Khaleesi of post-Marcus Aurelius Rome.
A Dish Best Served Cold
There's no doubt that Maximus's motivated by revenge. While at first he tries to give up on life (a slave caravan finds him lying next to the bodies of his family, for example, and upon arriving in Africa he doesn't do anything to defend himself during the first gladiator training session), Maximus soon realizes that it may be possible to get revenge.
And there's nothing that renews your will to live than some good ol' fashioned revenge. Just ask Liam Neeson.
After his first bout in the Roman Colosseum and subsequent meeting with Commodus, it's clear: Maximus will get Commodus if it's the last thing he does. (Spoiler: it's literally the last thing he does.)
He's ready to do so at first, but once Lucius (Commodus' nephew and Lucilla's son) shows up, he reconsiders. He concludes this highly-charged chat with the memorable:
MAXIMUS: I will have my vengeance, either in this life or the next.
He says much the same during a later encounter with Commodus (again in the arena):
MAXIMUS: I have only one more life to take. Then it is done.
No one ever accused Maximus of being anything but single-minded.
Maximus never forgets the memory of his murdered friend and surrogate father, Marcus Aurelius. While his quest for revenge is partly about avenging the death of his family and of Marcus Aurelius, he's also motivated by a desire to fulfill Marcus Aurelius' dying wishes and restore republican government to Rome.
He knows that Rome can be great…but only with great leadership.
He agrees to meet with Senator Gracchus because he knows this will allow him to defeat Commodus, but he also swears to hand his army over to the Senate so they can free Rome of the despotic dictatorship it has become. Maximus could take complete control of Rome, and yet we know he would never do such a thing.
He believes in freedom, good government, and doing the right thing. Essentially, heroism runs in this guy's veins.