In 1854 within the context of 19th century historical linguistics, Johann Georg von Hahn was the first to propose that the names Dardanoi and Dardania were derived from a proto-Albanian word, meaning pear tree (dardha in modern Albanian the definite form, dardhë indefinite form < PAlb *dardā), in view of the fact that toponyms related to fruits or animals are not unknown in the region (cf. Alb. dele/delmë "sheep" supposedly related to Dalmatia, Ulcinj in Montenegro < Alb. ujk, ulk "wolf" etc.). Opinions differ whether the ultimate etymon of this word in Proto-Indo-European was *g'hord-, or *dheregh-.
In Greek mythology, Dardanos (Δάρδανος), one of the sons of Illyrius (the others being Enchelus, Autarieus, Maedus, Taulas, and Perrhaebus) was the eponymous ancestor of the Dardanoi (Δάρδανοι). Some Roman ethnographers proposed a connection between Dardani of the Balkans and the Dardans of Troy, having a group of Dardan colonists settle in the Balkans and subsequently degenerate into a state of barbarism, but the Romans considered them to be Greeks as a whole, which contradicts modern scholarship.
The Dardani are first mentioned in the 4th century BC, when their king Bardylis succeeded in bringing various tribes into a single organization. Under his leadership the Dardani defeated the Macedonians and Molossians several times. At this time they were strong enough to rule Macedonia through a puppet king in 392-391 BC. In 385-384 they allied with Dionysius I of Syracuse and defeated the Molossians, killing up to 15,000 of their soldiers and ruling their territory for a short period. Their continuous invasions forced Amyntas III of Macedon to pay them a tribute in 372 BC. They returned raiding the Molossians in 360. In 359 BC Bardylis won a decisive battle against Macedonian king Perdiccas III, whom he killed himself, while 4,000 Macedonian soldiers fell, and the cities of upper Macedonia were occupied. Following this disastrous defeat, king Philip II took control of the Macedonian throne in 358 and reaffirmed the treaty with the Dardani, marrying princess Audata, probably the daughter or niece of Bardylis. The time of this marriage is somewhat disputed while some historians maintain that the marriage happened after the defeat of Bardylis. This gave Philip II valuable time to gather his forces against those Dardani who were still under Bardylis, defeating them at the Erigon Valley by killing about 7,000 of them, eliminating the Dardani menace for some time.
In 334 BC, under the leadership of Cleitus, the son of Bardylis, the Dardani, in alliance with other Illyrian tribes attacked Macedonia held by Alexander the Great. The Dardani managed to capture some cities but were eventually defeated by Alexander's forces.