In the film "Spartacus," the character Crassus remarks that he "fought fire with oil" in regards to him buying the Senate behind his rival's back to appoint his friend to a position of prominence.

The exact exchange:

Marcus Publius Glabrus: "How were you able to get my appointment without Gracchus knowing?"

Marcus Licinius Crassus:

"I fought fire with oil. I purchased the Senate behind his back."

Is this expression akin to "fight fire with fire"? I.e., doing the opposite of what you'd expect by using similar methods? Power with power, as the case may be? I can't find the meaning of it after doing a pretty thorough Google search. If I had to guess, I'd say it means the same as the more common expression, but I'm unsure. Maybe it's a more subtle way of saying you use similar tactics but slightly different methods to achieve an outcome that your adversary would also achieve in his own way?

  • If this isn't a literal translation of something an ancient roman said, this is not unlikely to be derived from a common german phrase, "Öl auf's Feuer giessen" (to pour oil on the fire), which means "to intentionally or negligently escalate an already troubled situation". May 1, 2017 at 4:31

1 Answer 1


It's a play on words of fight fire with fire by using a word (oil) from another idiom, namely

to grease or oil someone's palm

to bribe someone

See The Free Dictionary, which gives an example of both 'grease' and 'oil' in the same statement:

If you want to get something done around here, you have to grease someone's palm. I'd never oil a police officer's palm. That's illegal.

  • I'd suggest that while this answer is correct, the reason it wasn't "fight fire with grease" was to add an additional idiom of 'pouring gasoline on a fire' idioms.thefreedictionary.com/pouring+gasoline+on+the+fire with it's sense of escalating an angry situation .. .. so both idioms might apply equally with an edge to the grease/bribery being the primary means and the fire being the flavor of the method
    – Tom22
    May 1, 2017 at 0:04
  • ...not to mention pouring oil on troubled waters. May 1, 2017 at 2:18

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