I think the thing that's most appealing about this movie (to me, but I'm a pointy-headed history monkey) is how very Roman a hero our Maximus Decimus Meridius (Russell Crowe) is. He's modelled on Titus Quinctius Cincinnatus (also referred to as Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus,) who was elected to a dictatorship in Rome in 458 BCE to repel two Latin tribes who were threatening the city, the the Aequi and Volscians. After resoundingly defeating the invaders, Cincinattus laid down his dictatorship and returned to his farm, having no desire for power. Sound familiar?
The Romans had just as great a love for this type of humble hero as we do. They were similarly beset by career politicians and revered the ideal of the pure public servant - one who serves the people out of a sense of duty. Indeed, the Roman longing for great statesmen with no lust for personal power or influence was probably even greater than ours, given the troubles they had with generals and politicians violently seizing power for their personal aggrandizement.
The Roman mindset also shared our nostalgia for the pastoral life - members the Roman elite almost without exception owned villas in the countryside where they could retreat when the politics and bustle of Rome became overwhelming. They longed for the "good old days on the farm" just as much as we do, and the humble farmer (which in Roman terms meant a man who owned and managed a farm, not the slaves who worked in the fields) shared the same aura of simple goodness and strong values that we tend to ascribe to them.
A Roman audience would have been very fond indeed of our General Maximus. He displays all of the major Roman personal virtues: gravitas (an inherent, unshakeable dignity), virtus (bravery, strength or courage), severitas (discipline, training), and pietas (difficult to translate, but "dutifulness" comes close.) He's also a prime example of frugalitas (simple, unostentatious tastes) and firmitas (strength of purpose) - all in all, a model Roman hero. The more things change, the more they stay the same...