The heroes of the Epic poems The Iliad and The Odyssey are very different men who embody character traits that distinguish them from each other. They are both great men. The judgment of who is the better man depends on what character traits we value or whom we identify with. This judgment also depends on who we consider to have had a successful life.
Achilles is the outraged Achaean warrior who withdraws his arms and men from the siege of Troy. Agamemnon the King is jealous of the strength and courage of Achilles and threatened by his independent spirit. When challenged by Achilles to give up his beloved prize, the girl Chryseis, he feels stung as the leader, to be stripped of his prize while his underlings keep theirs. Achilles wants only the best for the common good. He is determined to win the war, and seeks to please the god Apollo who has been offended by Agamemnon, and for this reason has visited the whole camp with plague. Achilles therefore challenges Agamemnon to return the girl to her father who is Apollo’s priest.
Agamemnon spits insults at Achilles and demands that he hand over his prize, the beautiful Briseis, to compensate him his loss. This is understood as a slight of Achilles who is the best warrior and the most valiant in the army and worthy of respect and honor.
When Achilles is treated so unjustly, he is eager to kill him, but submits to the will of the god Athena who persuades him to give up this fight in the ranks. The gods who favor the Greeks will have no more discord. Achilles is outraged and hurt in his pride as only a valiant soldier who has given his all for the cause can be, and in his heart for he genuinely cares for the girl and she is attached to him, but for the good of the army he submits to the will of the gods and in lieu of a blood fight with Agamemnon, withdraws from the war.
Achilles is strong and sure of himself. He is pious and willing to submit to the will of the gods. He is audacious, able to stand up to anyone for the good of the whole army and the objective of victory. He is principled and very conscious of fair play and justice. And he is patient and trusting in ultimate vindication by the gods, and this he proves by waiting by his ships while the war continued, even though it was not his nature, as a man of action, to sit idly by.
Odysseus is the great Ithacan strategist and bane of Troy. After proving his wisdom, strength and courage on the battlefield in front of the walls of Troy, and bringing ultimate victory by plotting the brilliant foil of sending the horse full of hidden soldiers inside the walls to vanquish the unsuspecting Trojans, he sets out homeward with his men and his plunder. He eventually makes it home but not one of his men survive. He wanders for ten years as misfortune and adventure test his wits, but throughout his trials, Odysseus remains pious and devoted to Athena who loves him dearly for his courage, strength but most of all for his intelligence, which he uses to outsmart his enemy with deception, so to catch them off guard.
When he finally gets to Ithaca, he finds his home besieged by over one hundred men who plunder his flocks and storeroom by an endless presence and feasting, as they woo his faithful wife, shamefully putting her under pressure by the threat they pose to the material well being of the house and the life of her son. They make Odysseus’ home inhospitable to his family and even to poor beggars, including himself, who returns disguised as one, so as to bide his time, assess the situation and plot how best to rid his house of these ill mannered suitors.
Odysseus is restrained in his actions most of the time. He has extraordinary patience and foresight, and his trust in his own judgment and plans makes him optimistic. His faith in Athena makes him have courage and he relies on her as an advocate and ally. He is a pious man who loves his home, not war, who treasures his family and toils to restore order. His personality is quite different from Achilles who loves to make war, who is proud of his strength and eager to use it in battle. Odysseus goes to war when he has to, and uses every means possible to make the fight quick and effective so he can get on with what he truly loves which is living in peace. He is much more veiled in his warring tactics than Achilles who is fast and strong and furious, open with his indignation when it arises, and loud with his stand on dignity. Odysseus disguises his motives and holds his temper and his tongue with amazing discipline even when to strike out in response to insults and hurts would be the most natural thing to do
In the end, Odysseus is victorious over all his adversities and his enemies and he is reunited with his family and lives to a ripe old age with his family, blessed by the gods. Achilles dies in Troy. He is honored as a great warrior but never came to know the happiness of peace and the holiness of home and family. Perhaps these were not important to him and dying a hero was all he wanted, so that his life was a success for him.
However, Odysseus’ life is the more successful in my opinion. In the end, he proves himself the better man because throughout his life he has aimed to please the gods. Achilles is a great man too, a forceful character, but much of his life was about having the gods please him. In this comparison therefore, I think Odysseus wins.