In Recess 2022
From the Classics to the Courtroom
Interview by Will Korn
A small contingent of a third century B.C. Achaean Greek army, featuring foot soliders and cavalry, painted and organized by Bill Chriss. Photos courtesy of Bill Chriss.
In a world chock-full of instant entertainment, storybook Greek mythology or church history might seem a dreadful bore to many. Bill Chriss would wholeheartedly disagree. Embracing his Greek heritage, he spent his childhood immersed in the epic tales and battles of ancient heroes and armies—a multi-faceted passion that has deeply influenced his law career. The Corpus Christi-based appellate attorney spoke to the Texas Bar Journal about his formative fascination and how he has applied his love for history and the classics to the law.
WHAT WAS THE ORIGIN OF YOUR INTEREST IN ANCIENT AND CHURCH
It all began with the ancient Greeks—Greek mythology, ancient heroes like Hercules, Theseus, Achilles, and the 300 Spartans. As a child, my Greek mother would read me these stories and give me books to read about them. I saw movies about Hercules, the Trojan War, and the 300 Spartans by the time I was six or seven years old. I then became an altar boy in the local Greek Orthodox Church and began learning the liturgy in Greek, as well as some elementary Eastern Christian theology, which is heavily historical. Around age 12, I was introduced to ancient and medieval wargames by which historical battles could be re-fought as games. In high school I read Thucydides, the Iliad, and Greek tragedies. In college, I studied Byzantine history and learned about the schisms in church history and the crusades.
WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST LOVE GROWING UP?
My first loves were politics and the church. As a teenager, I had an inclination to the clergy but I knew I didn’t have the temperament for it, so I chose politics as a way of doing good for people in dire straits, a sort of secular priesthood or vocation. I went to Harvard Law School because that’s what I thought one did to become a congressman or senator. But once I got married and started having a family and became a lawyer, I could see that politics wasn’t for me anymore than the clergy was, so I decided to become the best lawyer I could be and help people in need in that way.
WHO ARE YOUR FAVORITE ANCIENT CHARACTERS?
Because my family comes from the province of Messenia in Greece, I am particularly fond of Epaminondas of Thebes, who liberated the Messenian helots from Spartan enslavement in the 360s B.C. I also like Philopoemen of the nearby Achaean League in the Peloponnesus, who again defeated the Spartans and resisted the Roman conquest of Greece in the 200s B.C.
WHAT ARE YOUR FAVORITE ANCIENT ARMIES/BATTLE(S) OF
My armies are all Greek: Athenian, Theban, and Argive hoplites of the 300s B.C.; the Achaean League of 225-200 B.C.; and the Byzantine (Greco-Roman) armies of the period from 700 A.D. to 1453 A.D.
Chriss chanting customary hymns at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox
Church in Corpus Christi, where he has attended his entire life.
Photos courtesy of Bill Chriss.
TELL ME A BIT ABOUT THE WARFARE TOURNAMENT MATCHES YOU
I compete in local and national tournaments where you bring your army and play several refereed matches against randomly seeded opponents who could be anything from Aztecs to Vikings to medieval knights. There is a system whereby the armies are “equalized” in strength—more armor or better weapons would mean less soldiers in your army, and vice versa. In creating an army, once you paint your figures, you must organize them by affixing a certain number of figures to a rectangular base. The size of the base and the number of figures on it are determined by the rules. Cavalry have deeper bases. Light infantry have fewer figures per base compared to heavy infantry, etc. The player is allowed a certain number of rectangular “units” each composed of between two- and 12-piece bases of figures. These units are moved on the tabletop up to a maximum number of inches per turn determined by the rules and the troop type as specified in the generic army list selected by the player. The tabletop has predetermined terrain features—hills, streams, woods—that impede or affect movement and combat. Combat is initiated by a unit moving so as to touch bases with an enemy unit. The entire thing is completely hands-on with players deploying troops, moving them with rulers or measuring sticks, deciding which units will attack which, rolling dice, and cross-referencing the result with the combat tables. Once a unit takes a certain number of casualties by combat, it routs (runs off the table). Once one side loses the sufficient number of units specified by the rules, that side loses.
HAVE YOU EVER WON ANY OF THESE LOCAL OR NATIONAL
Never. I have gotten as far as the semifinals a couple of times in regional tournaments, and I once qualified for the invitational national championship in Pennsylvania, but the play was so elevated that I got beaten pretty easily by superior opponents, many of whom are retired or active-duty military officers. I enjoy the history and the pageantry of the game more than winning.
WORKING AS AN ATTORNEY, WHAT WAS IT LIKE TO GO BACK TO SCHOOL
FOR A THEOLOGY DEGREE?
This was a distance learning experience, so it was administered by the Antiochian (Syrian) Orthodox Church in the U.S., but my thesis had to be read and approved by the St. John of Damascus seminary at the University of Balamand, the national university of Lebanon. It somehow got around a lot of local churches that I knew a lot of early church history, and so I got invited to lecture at a number of churches of different denominations. Really, my friend and colleague Kathy Snapka was the first one to get me into it at her Methodist church. I sought the degree because self-taught people only know what they know, not what they don’t know. The entry into seminary education was also driven by what is sometimes called a “religious conversion experience” that I had the first time I went to Greece and visited the cave on the island of Patmos where St. John wrote the Book of Revelation. From there my foray into writing and teaching about legal ethics was a natural progression.
TELL ME ABOUT THE CONNECTION TO YOUR LOCAL GREEK ORTHODOX
CHURCH. WHAT DREW YOU TO THAT FAITH AND INSPIRED YOUR
My grandfather, after whom I was named, laid the cornerstone to our local church in 1950. I was baptized there and served as an altar boy and reader, but my faith was pretty simple and uninformed. A Romanian priest came to town around the time of my trip to Patmos. He was very well educated and a splendid teacher of theology. Through my friendship with him, I began to learn more sophisticated theology and it was he who suggested to me that I pursue a seminary education for enlightenment.
HOW HAVE THESE TWO MAJOR AREAS OF STUDY—LAW AND
HISTORY—CONVERGED IN YOUR CAREER?
As a trial lawyer, I found that lawyers paid by the hour seldom engage in strategic thinking. Instead, if they can do a thing and get paid for it, they generally will do it without any plan or idea of how it might help their overall position in the case or how it might contradict other things they are doing and saying. Now that I concentrate more on appellate work, I find that appellate lawyers are generally much more strategic in their thinking. Studying and immersing oneself in military history and strategy have been invaluable tools for me as a trial and appellate lawyer. TBJ